Roger Davis - Jim Smith
Mark Cohen - Sam Gregory
Tom Collins - Liam Baker
Benjamin Coffin III - James Gould
Joanne Jefferson - Angharad Morgan
Angel Dumott Schunard - Gerson Sunggay
Mimi Marquez - Vikki-Jo Keens
Maureen Johnson - Katy Watt
Squeegee Girl - Carrie Bellet
Mr Jefferson - Matthew Broadway
Gordon - Dave Brown
Seasons of Love Soloist - Sarah Dally
Waitress / Mrs Marquez - Sammi Gardiner
Mrs Cohen - Kimberly King
Mrs Jefferson/Alexi Darling - Susie Maycock
Pastor - Stu Collins
Mr Grey / Paul - Dave Smith
Mrs Davis - Aimee Wright
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.