THE REVIEWS ARE IN!
Rent is not only technically difficult to sing and produce, it also divides opinion renown for being a ‘Marmite’ show due to its subject matter. It’s therefore a very brave decision for any company to perform it, let alone an amateur group. Southampton Musical Society has taken on this challenge and overall triumphed in this hard-hitting piece.
Jonathan Larson’s musical, inspired by Puccini’s opera La Bohème, won four Tony Awards, six Drama Desk Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1996. Ben Brantley’s New York Times review was a love letter to the show, calling RENT an “exhilarating, landmark rock opera”. RENT ran on Broadway for 12 years, from 1996 to 2008. The show premiered in London’s West End in 1998 at the Shaftesbury Theatre, where it ran for 18 months. It was adapted into a film in 2005.
Whilst the original opera on which Rent is based, was centred around tuberculosis, Larson draws on what he felt his generation was living under the shadows of, AIDS. Many of Larson’s friends at the time of writing had HIV and whilst he was healthy Rent is his way of trying to make sense of what his friends were dealing with.
The subject is brutally real and raw and Southampton Musical Society delivers it with aplomb, tenderness and poignancy. Ensemble harmonies are on point, with Another Day, La Vie Bohème, and Seasons of Love, being particular highlights. Soloist Sarah Dally added such character to Seasons of Love she was richly rewarded with huge audience appreciation in the reprise.
Unfortunately there were at times significant sound issues, which I felt didn’t assist with individual performances and may have heightened nerves. None more so than with Angel played by Gerson Sunggay, whose performance was plagued by mic issues. This I felt contributed to a pivotal character being unduly hindered. That said, credit to Sunggay who still gave good delivery and I’m sure with the sound issues resolved that our ‘Angel’ will really shine, as we did catch some glimpses of what was truly there. The key here is to remember that this group did not have the luxury of a week to two weeks technical rehearsals, as a professional company would have. Just one technical performance will have taken place and so opening night sound issues are often to be expected but will be resolved.
Having seen a number of amateur groups and professional productions of Rent, what struck me was the extreme level of depth of characterisation within this cast. No doubt testament to the expert direction of Dawn Broomfield, but also to the performers themselves. This show can be difficult to engage with and I believe it’s not one you can merely listen to, to fully appreciate its beauty, you have to feel it and this cast make you do just that.
The role of Mark played by Sam Gregory was delivered with such professionalism, it would not have been out-of-place in my normal haunts of the West End. That comment can also be applied to Jim Smith as Roger, who gave us an engaging and charismatic performance. Particularly in his scenes with Vikki-Jo Keens as Mimi, who equally matched every inch of Smith’s professionalism. Keens addictive behaviour and demise, was delivered with poignancy and respect. Our feisty liberated Maureen played by Katy Watt certainly started as she meant to go on. Full of sassiness and revolutionary angst, Watt was perfect casting personified.
Whilst I would dearly love to name check every cast member other noteworthy performances were; Angharad Morgan, James Gould, Dave Brown, Stu Collins, Kimberly King and Liam Baker. Baker as Tom Collins gave a heart-felt performance and I was particularly moved by his solo.
Going back to the ‘Marmite’ scenario I’m definitely in team love it. This was firmly reinforced last night on hearing once again the interesting score, executed superbly, under the musical direction of Christopher Ball.
Quite simply this is the best amateur production of Rent I’ve ever seen and as I’ve said before some of the performances would not be out-of-place in the professional world of musical theatre.
Review by Caroline Hanks-Farmer
Southampton Musical Society’s production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent Is set in New York and tells the story of a year in the lives of a group of friends who are sqatting in an abandoned building. The decisions they have to face and the choices they make are likely to shape the rest of their lives and they anguish over them while trying to live a life free from responsibilities.
The set is fantastic, and on many different levels is used effectively to represent a myriad of locations from the space where our protagonists live; a church, a bar and various streets and other outdoor locations. The lighting is equally strong and represents the mood and feeling of the music well. Unfortunately there are a couple of dark spots and at times an actor will drift into them but not often.
Direction and choreography by Dawn Broomfield is excellent; pace is high and the dancing is full of energy. All of the cast look like they’re having fun and the emotional sense of the songs is clearly presented.
The acting is generally of a high standard. Jim Smith, as Roger Davis plays the love-struck wannabe musician, full of angst and choosing to hide the fact he’s HIV-positive from the woman of his dreams. He generally hits the right tone but his “No” at the apparent loss of his girlfriend slightly reminds me of Darth Vader’s “Noooo” at the end of Revenge of the Sith, coming across without a real sense of despair.
Sam Gregory, as Mark Cohen, plays the arty photographer well coming across as a young Woody Allen complete with an overprotective, overly attentive stereotypical Jewish mother. Sam largely serves as the link between the audience and the players and keeps the story flowing. Liam Baker as Tom Collins, a nerdy computer programmer with a drug problem, is always watchable. He comes across as dark and brooding, he lightens up and starts to embrace life when he finds love with transvestite Angel Dumott Schunard, played by Gerson Sunggay, who is always a delight to watch. Their relationship though ultimately tragic is portrayed very well and is believable and emotional. Vikki -Jo-Keens as Mimi Marquez strikes a great balance between being both vulnerable and manipulative, starting out as a junkie looking for a fix and then finding love. Her arc is the emotional hit for the piece.
The rest of the cast all do very well, but……….
The big problem I have with this production is the sound mix! You can’t always clearly hear the song lyrics and in this style of production when the whole show is sung, this is a problem. It’s difficult to follow the story and you don’t emotionally engage with the characters. I know it’s not down to the cast's abilty because there are some quieter moments when you can hear them and the live music is great too, well-played and in-tune. It’s just the overall sound mix doesn’t work for me. At times it felt as though I was watching an interpretive dance show, a dance, a change of lights, a change of lights, a dance etc, etc.
The sound mix is a shame as visually this production looks great, well lit, great set and with good choreography. If only I could hear the words clearly.
Review by Kevin Bowers
This is something very special. There were times I did not believe I was watching an amateur production, such was the quality of the piece.
Loosely based around the characters and plot of Puccini’s La Bohème, the show explores many adult themes as it tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and create a life in New York’s ‘s East Village. The first half explores how the characters met and who they are, the second is more a reflection of what happened next and who they become in the seasons of love that follow.
Dawn Broomfield has created a piece of theatre of which she can be immensely proud. Her attention to detail, from Roger’s black nail varnish to groupings, is extraordinary, but most of all she draws out an intensity of performance from an extraordinarily talented cast. The show demands focus and drive but more than that, a belief in the realism of the situation – and that has to come across in the relationship body language. No holding your opposite partner at arm’s length with the occasional peck on the cheek here at all: Dawn makes it real by allowing the girls and boys to drape around each other in a natural way so you are enthralled by the emotion. And all the cast appear to relish this opportunity and seize it with real zeal and panache.
In an ensemble piece – and I mean a real ensemble piece where everyone is allowed to shine and have a moment – it is difficult to reflect and focus on too many individuals, as it may imply detriment to others. I have to mark the contribution of the highly professional-sounding band. It is a sung-through work, like an opera, and they work so hard and have a great sound and pace with Christopher Ball at the helm and on piano, with Jason Beaumont, George Storrey, James Gale and Daniel Brown in full wonderful flight from start to finish.
The singing throughout, solo, duet and ensemble, is likewise highly professional. This work is not an easy sing, yet the cast make it look effortless, especially the complex harmony work on ‘La vie Bohème’ and of course the signature opening of act 2, which sent tingles down this reviewer’s spine.
Character development and interaction are superbly followed through, Maureen and Joanne’s turbulent relationship being particularly well portrayed and passionately expressed by Katy Watt and Anghared Morgan on excellent form, the latter also sashaying her way through ‘Tango: Maureen’ with a vibrant Sam Gregory as main narrator/film observer, Mark. Jim Smith and Vicki Jo Keens bring tenseness and sultriness to their portrayed relationship as Roger and Mimi, the ‘Will you light my candle’ sequence being very well done as both playful yet mysterious, a winning combination.
For sheer emotional response (audible weeping around me) I have to cite the performances of Liam Baker and Gerson Sunggay as Tom and Angel. The eulogy song is quite sublime (sorry, spoilers) for the masterful creation of Angel, who just radiates everything I suspect composer Jonathan Larson wanted in this uniquely created character.
James Gould brings a sense of roundness and fondness to Benjamin Coffin III, a character that has at times in the past just been Mr Shouty Nasty; this is a nicely done different approach which gives Mimi more than just opportunist reason (money) to be with him, giving credence to the eventual Roger relationship, too.
Hitting the high notes is Sarah Dally with fabulous hair, alongside Dave Smith, Stu Collins, Sammi Gardner, Kimberley King, Aimee Wright, Susie Maycock, Carrie Bellett, Matthew Broadway and Dave Brown, making a wonderful sound and impression with various characterisations throughout.
I cannot recommend this production enough as value entertainment. It is on until 14 April.
Mark Barton-Leigh, who is stepping down as Chairman of the Group, has indeed gone out on a high.
Review by David Putley
Southampton Musical Society performed a perfect rendition of the musical Rent at The Point, Eastleigh last Wednesday. Set in the East Village of New York City, Rent is about falling in love, finding your voice and living for today. These performers certainly knew exactly how to grip the Eastleigh audience with pitch-perfect vocals and above all, it was actually really funny at times. With sexual and drug references throughout the show, I would not necessarily recommend this musical for a family audience however it does give an insightful look into what the dangers are concerning this.
Each and every member of the cast put in 110% in what was the first of four performances at The Point. Even before the show started, there was a lot of buzz for this musical and despite not being fully sold out there was a great atmosphere at the venue. With classic songs performed such as Tango: Maureen and Light My Candle, it was always going to be a gripping performance if done correctly and Southampton Musical Society knew exactly what they were doing. The song that really got me as a neutral was Seasons of Love that was performed in the second part of the show and the cast finished on this while taking a bow. It was performed perfectly and it actually created a lot of smiles in the audience which was really nice to see.
This show created a lot of emotions throughout as it dealt with death and love and with it going on for 165 minutes including the break, I can honestly say that I felt it went really quickly and I would recommend this to any lovers of musicals. With this being my first real time at a musical, I was not expecting it to be this good yet I enjoyed every minute of it.
Review by Kieran James
Southampton Musical Society Registered Charity No 299426