October 14, 2016
You know that song the moment you saw the word “RENT” — the one that rattles off a series of mesmerising numbers, that just rolls off your tongue. Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, that’s how you measure a year isn’t it? But be honest, how many of you actually know the meaning behind the lyrics of this Broadway classic? Okay, since we’re all about honesty here, I’m really talking about myself — I went in knowing only one song, but came out as besotted as everyone else.
The premise of the piece, written by creator Jonathan Larson, is simple: a year in the life of a bunch of friends, mostly impoverished young artists struggling to make a living (and to pay last year’s… rent), while simultaneously dreaming of the ideals of Bohemia in gritty New York City’s East Village in the 90s. It’s meant to be a punk-rock edition of Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème. And while modern Singapore’s a fair distance away, both in time and place, local theatre production company Pangdemonium’s staging of the award-winning play, 20 years after its debut, comes pretty close to the original, both technically and in the purity of the play’s life-affirming message.
We’ve long known about the theatre company’s success in past musical stagings Next to Normal and Spring Awakening, as well as the touching drama Falling just this year, so we know how adeptly director Tracie Pang and her team juggles themes of love, both revelry and heartbreak, always with tender heart-tugging moments in between. This was no different, but with the energy revved up even higher by captivating rock anthems backed by a live band.
The ensemble numbers, La Vie Boheme included, were fun and feisty, thoroughly entertaining as the actors pranced about various parts of the stage, such that you’ll find your eyes constantly flickering from left to right. Seasons of Love, naturally, was sang with much gusto and uplifting emotion, while at the same time allowing the best singers in the house to shine. We’re talking about vocal powerhouse Frances Lee, who plays human rights lawyer Joanne, and Juan Jackson, who plays tech wizard Collins, who came in with an arresting baritone.
Not that we’re biased here, but it was the girls who came out top, with standout performances of the night. Tabitha Nauser’s turn in the play was pleasantly surprising — while not as seasoned as some of her other cast members, the 987fm DJ had plenty to boast about as she plays troubled club dancer Mimi. Her first song, Light My Candle, a duet with disillusioned musician Roger, had all the elements of the original, part flirty, part saccharine, as sparks flew between the two neighbours. While we would have loved to see her take it up a notch in Out Tonight, in terms of the sheer sensuality of that song, her vocals were consistent throughout the play, and Nauser gave a nuanced performance to her lovelorn character, her caramel voice bringing out Mimi’s sweet innocence.
The original Maureen was played by the unparalleled Idina Menzel — seriously, how can you not be blown away — but we have to say, Mina Kaye did a brilliant job playing the sassy, often flighty, wild child performance artist. Her character was first alluded to by Joanne and Mark in a fascinating number called Tango Maureen, before she finally burst onto the stage with a performance of her own, a song that involved dreamscapes and political satire, that weaved between spoken word and technical singing. Definitely a hard piece to carry. Still, her solo moment enthralled, and Kaye’s Maureen was as electrifying as the character was meant to be, with the rich vocals to match — we’re pretty sure that most of the audience members laughing away also secretly wished we had as commanding a presence as she had. Maureen and Joanne, as lovers, also had a good chemistry between them, and the actors managed to bring out the fiery desire at the core of their difficult relationship, best encapsulated in Take Me Or Leave Me — their body language, intense eyes and feisty vocals that did justice to the song’s premise and lyrics, made for one hell of a compelling segment within the show.
Naturally, we couldn’t leave out the core of the play: Collins and kind-hearted drag queen Angel, played by Aaron Khaled. Khaled gave a fearless spirit to the play’s most heartwarming character, and we can’t help but smile at the two’s happy, almost cheesy, rendition of I’ll Cover You. This song takes a turn in the second act of the play, after a tragic circumstance leaves Collins to confront an unbearable truth — and us, to confront actor Jackson’s teary-eyed symphony head-on as well. He brings a poignant vulnerability to the same lyrics “Open your door, I’ll be your tenant/ Don’t got much baggage, to lay at your feet/ But sweet kisses, I’ve got to spare”, his voice deep and quiet, drawing us in, and leaving us in a pool of emotion.
All this, combined with a well-rounded cast with lots of heart, makes for a play that you really don’t want to miss. Gotta say, the songs are definitely stuck in my head now — and it’s more than that one ballad.
Date: 7 – 23 October
Time: 8pm, Tues to Fri; 3pm and 8pm, Sat; 3pm, Sun
Venue: Drama Centre Theatre, National Library Building
Tickets: $30 – $95, available at sistic.com.sg
More information at pangdemonium.com.