Rent 20th Anniversary Concert (Tour – Manchester)

”Rent” without a set works a treat at the Palace Theatre, says Dave Cunningham

Staging musicals is both expensive and problematic. Stage sets cost a fortune and the genre requires a cast who can not only sing but also act and, on occasion, dance. Director Daniel Wood finds an original solution to this problem. He marks the 20th Anniversary of Rent by staging the show as a concert rather than a musical.

Rent in Concert
Rent in Concert
© Daniel Wood

The result, perhaps inevitably, is a compromise, but a honourable one. The initial impression is not of a concert but rather a musical without scenery. In the style of Chicago the cast, in costume, perform the full text of the musical as well as the songs and interact together in front of a live band clearly visible in a skeletal mental structure. This artificial approach suits the knowing attitude of Jonathan Larson‘s script, in which the characters frequently address their remarks direct to the audience rather than each other and the dialogue includes stage cues.

The cast clearly can act as well as sing. Natasha Hamilton immerses herself in the role of Maureen and enjoys disregarding her pop star persona (and at one point her jeans) to transform into a pretentious performance artiste strutting around the stage dressed like Catwoman.

The concert concept becomes clear with the first song performed without intrusive dialogue. Suddenly the five-piece band kick into a furious riff and the auditorium is raked by searching spotlights. It is still soft rock, but conductor Rosalind Jones sets a rapid pace and creates a harder edge than most musicals would tolerate. Director Wood uses the concert format with restraint to ensure maximum impact. The visually striking figure of drag queen Angel (Ian Stroughair) makes a stunning rock star entrance bathed in purple lighting. Rachel John, as the foxy Mimi, exploits the concert format for all it is worth, cutting loose with a raucous vocal display and writhing around the stage in a strikingly feral manner.

The exuberance of the first Act does not always seem appropriate to the storyline and certainly makes it hard to follow the narrative. Jonathan Larson’s script updates Puccini’s La Bohéme to the late 20th Century and replaces tuberculosis with the onset of HIV/AIDS. Yet the tone of the first Act is more like a romp as the characters construct a variety of schemes to avoid playing their rent. Taking a cue from the achingly lovely Seasons of Love (that opens the second Act and features an amazing falsetto) Wood sets a more consistent and melancholy tone for the second Act. Impressively, he manages to overcome the setting of a large barren stage and achieve moments of tenderness and intimacy.

Rent – the Concert substitutes passion for coherence at times and that makes it hard to follow the multi-character storyline. But then this isn’t a play or even a musical – it is a concert, and a very good one at that.

Rent the Concert continues touring into 2014 and there are more details here.

– Dave Cunningham