Friday, 19 October 2007

REVIEW: "RENT Remixed"

(Not that it should be hard for people to guess what I thought of this. If the review seems as incoherent as the production, it's because I'm only posting the framework of what will be a far longer article for class here.)

The theatre is comprised of many great successes, but an even greater number of failures. Some shows fail from their first performance, yet others succeed in many ways and places, only to fall short in specific locales and times or under certain creative teams. Jonathan Larson’s RENT is one of these shows, and suffers greatly in a newly misconceived production at the Duke of York’s advertised as RENT Remixed. Readers should note that story and character points will be brought up in detail, and are advised to skip to the final paragraph in order to avoid “spoilers.”

As it stands, there are so many problems with William Baker’s production that one is spoiled for choice in areas to pan, but I shall begin with Mr. Baker’s maligned work on the story. Few will disagree that RENT in its original form had book problems, including a fair share of plot holes and the burying of important information in forgettable throwaway lines. However, the overall character through-lines were consistently presented. Not so in Remixed, as songs are moved around, segues are repositioned, dialogue is trimmed, and even the act break is reworked. What’s left is a jumbled mess that destroys the limited narrative of Larson’s original that should (and could) have been fixed during the tumultuous preview period.

Regarding the much-hyped reworked orchestrations, Steve Anderson has come up with a mixed bag of pieces that work and fail, frequently within the same number. There are enough interesting selections here to have compiled a novelty CD of highlights, but the new score lacks cohesion as a whole. While the strong numbers are impressive such as “Contact” which, despite poor staging and hideous costumes provides a terrifying experience in combination with a sequence of fantastic lighting are good, many of the results are mixed. Tone issues are common throughout as the orchestrations, short on rock guitar but heavy on synthesized strings, frequently lack the drive and energy needed to sell the number. Worst off are two numbers known as RENT’s rock anthems. Mr. Anderson changed “What You Own”, a song of self revelation for filmmaker/narrator Mark and songwriter Roger, from a cynical eleven o’clock rouser to a slow, whiny solo for Mark. Similarly, HIV infected dancer Mimi’s powerhouse piece “Out Tonight” is now sung as burlesque, with lots of virtual trumpets but no fire or soul.

In terms of casting, it’s clear that Mr. Baker (unsurprisingly) cared about style and looks over acting or musical capacity, given his background as celebrity stylist for celebrity page favourite Kylie Minogue. Leading this miscast brat pack is Oliver Thornton as Mark. Mr. Thornton plays the role with the cheap antics of someone who has been in the same role for years and jokes around onstage to keep himself entertained rather than the audience. When required to sing, a classically trained opera tenor appears, as if Mr. Thornton is imagining himself across the street at the ENO rather than slumming it here.

Equally miscast is ex-pop star Siobhan Donaghy as Mimi. Ms. Donaghy’s pop experience is helpful when her requirement is strictly to sing towards the audience, but her breath control is distractingly poor, as she gasps for breath after each line in her major songs, and her chemistry with Luke Evans’s borderline abusive Roger is nonexistant. A similar predicament affects TV presenter Denise Van Outen as Maureen, a slutty performance artist and Mark’s Ex. Ms. Van Outen’s singing is passable and she can stir up an audience, but her acting is wooden when interacting with other cast members.

Mark Bailey is also responsible for this production’s sets, a whitewashed set of walls and lit platform with chairs, stairs and a catwalk. It’s even more minimalist than the original designs, and despite looking far too posh (the walls need grime), is perfectly functional for the show with the exception of a large LED board that was broken during the performance I attended.

Overall, RENT Remixed is a failure as a work of musical theatre. It lacks a coherent plot, gives us no emotional attachment to our characters, and poorly represents the score. The only people who should visit this show are diehard RENT fans in need of a fix or the sorts of anoraks who seek out flops and trainwrecks. Unfortunately, the production was capitalized for under £500,000 and only 80% of the budget has been used, meaning that the producers can keep the show open until holiday tourists come, making recoupment a scary yet likely possibility.

Where: Duke of York's
When: Open run, dark on Sundays. Check the booking site for times.
Cost: £15-45 (See note)
Concessions: Students get general admission for £25.
Note: Seats in the circles as well as prime stalls are reserved for £15/25/45. The rest of the stalls are sold as general admission for £30 (going up in a week or two to £35). The RZ strongly recommends checking out Theatre Monkey before you go if you book unreserved.
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RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": £15 to see what the fuss is about, but honestly, you're best off avoiding it.
RZ Other Notes: The recommendation in the review proper should be adhered to. If you dont' fit those categories, this is not the show for you. While theatregoers unfamiliar with the original staging or the film may find merit in this piece, and old fans with an extremely open mind will find bits to enjoy, this production will not convert anybody who hated the Michael Grief edition. The RZ is greatly disappointed in the RENT Remixed creative team for wasting their previews on minor staging quibbles (though many of the minor things WERE fixed to an extent) but failing to do anything with the key issues that were pointed out again and again by attendees.

10 comments:

me said...

This review was very thorough and shed good light on the disasterous changes to rent.

I was wondering though what plotholes you found in the original rent.

Rogue Zentradi said...

I was wondering though what plotholes you found in the original rent.

A lot of the issues script-wise in the original stem from the unfinished nature of the piece. For example, the bit in "Christmas Bells":

"There that's her!"
"Maureen?"
"Mimi!"

Why does Mark ask if it's Maureen? Well, in the 1994 production when he was still pining for her, there was a longer interchange at that point between him and Roger. The idea that Collins has a job is ignored (though Larson's notes from the final NYTW Dress show that he was planning to add more material for the character), a solid reason for Benny's reform, these are all things that would be nice to have fleshed out and require the viewer to take a leap of faith about.

There's also the case of "How do Mark and Roger not know who Mimi is if she lives in their building?" There are probably bigger ones that other readers can post on, but I'm sleep deprived and have my views tainted by development stuff. Generally speaking, the little nits and glitches in the text don't bother me. As Daphne Rubin-Vega put it in the RENT coffee table book, "Part of what makes RENT beautiful is its roughness. It's just like living on the Lower East Side: there's a lot of shit going on. It's messy. Good." (p55) Still, the original production has a focus and organization behind the mess that this new production lacks.

wembley said...

I've only heard an audio bootleg, and not even the whole thing, but this is possibly the first time I've ever read a review where I just nodded my head and went, "Yes, yes, YES." Totally agree with you on everything. (Okay, except that I didn't *hate* "Out Tonight," but yeah, the fire -- gone. Man, on most of those songs it's almost... it almost feels like they *started* re-arranging them and then got bored and stopped trying halfway through.) BTW, in your comment here, you mention Larson's notes on the NYTW worshop. How did you see those? And, um, are you willing to... share them? (...god, I'm such a nerd. A rabid nerd.)

I am not a purist; I love revivals, when the artist reviving the piece has a vision or at the very least, a strong idea that they're putting energy into. But this... so many of the ideas make no sense. Like you said, there are all these glitches in the book that they could have tightened and addressed, but instead, the Remixed team made it *worse*. (Actually, I feel the same about the Chris Columbus movie, but even that's not nearly as bad.)

I hope you end up posting your full review here; you're really eloquent and you seem to love the show, and I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on it.

Rogue Zentradi said...

BTW, in your comment here, you mention Larson's notes on the NYTW worshop. How did you see those? And, um, are you willing to... share them?

A page from them was on display at a tribute concert at the Library of Congress last year. A friend tried taking a picture, but sadly it didn't come out very well. If you have a reader card and can show some proof of academic identity (read: proof that you're a grad student or have professional interest in the materials), you can gain access to Larson's papers at the LoC in Washington, DC.

I am not a purist; I love revivals, when the artist reviving the piece has a vision or at the very least, a strong idea that they're putting energy into.

I think you nailed the issue of this piece on the head. There have been a number of brilliant revivals, especially from British directors, in recent years that seeing this was just so...disappointing. Then again, look what it's had to live up to:

1993/1998 - Cabaret (Sam Mendes)
2002 - Oklahoma (Trevor Nunn)
2006 - Company (John Doyle)

One could arguably add the 2003 reworking of Fiddler on the Roof as well, but that failed to get the solid praise that the three above did. And for what it's worth, I've seen videos of alternative RENT stagings. They all have their flaws and successes, but they still remained true to the spirit of the piece (as much as that's a thoroughly unscientific and abstract notion as it is).

wembley said...

Do you have any favorites, re: other alternative Rent stagings? I've seen a bootleg of Rent in Ireland, but the bootlegger got kicked out pretty early in Act 1, so I didn't see much. I remember Today 4 U being weird.

(Also, you didn't mention John Doyle's revival of Sweeney. I think it seemed so neat! You're not a fan? :))

Rogue Zentradi said...

Do you have any favorites, re: other alternative Rent stagings? I've seen a bootleg of Rent in Ireland, but the bootlegger got kicked out pretty early in Act 1, so I didn't see much. I remember Today 4 U being weird.

I'm quite fond of the Dutch version, where the stage was done as multiple steps and levels. Mark's camera was wired into the A/V, so the audience saw whatever he was shooting. Roger spent a lot of the first act moping under one of the steps, and it's memorable when "Out Tonight" ends because Mimi lays down on a matress above Roger's step and he starts "Another Day" by banging on it from below before getting up and dragging her off the platform.

The Hungarian is adequate, but IMHO also lacks energy, though it shows what can be done in a small performance space. Videos of both of these were done for company archives (and subsequently leaked).

(Also, you didn't mention John Doyle's revival of Sweeney. I think it seemed so neat! You're not a fan? :))

I enjoyed his Sweeney Todd as well, but feel that the technique was more effective in Company where we were getting a series of character pieces rather than a traditional narrative. It should be interesting to see Merrily We Roll Along when it opens.

Courtney said...

I must say that I agree with you completely about your points in the review; I (somehow) saw it three times, and still can't believe how they completely lost the heart of the show. And another thing I thought was troublesome was that when a female understudy is on, suddenly there's only one female ensemble member, as they have no female swing. Or at least they didn't the last time I bought the program. And two questions- do you know why Take Me or Leave Me is sometimes cut? And is there anyway I can see those Dutch and Hungarian productions in their entirety? ;) Anyways, thanks for the very well written, enlightening review.

Rogue Zentradi said...

Not sure if you'll see this given how infrequently back comments tend to get checked...

And another thing I thought was troublesome was that when a female understudy is on, suddenly there's only one female ensemble member, as they have no female swing. Or at least they didn't the last time I bought the program.

A couple people on the WhatsonStage boards have said that a new female swing has (finally) been hired.

And two questions- do you know why Take Me or Leave Me is sometimes cut?

Denise has developed vocal cysts and can't sing the number most nights. If I had to hazard a guess, (and if the show's staff are smart) they got her to record a click track as soon as she got diagnosed so that she can speak her way through Maureen's few lines and lip sync the rest.

Oh, and who's this actress from EastEnders that they're replacing her with?


And is there anyway I can see those Dutch and Hungarian productions in their entirety?

Well, you can either find someone involved in the production to let you watch the archive videos or find someone with a collection of nonexistent copies to get one from.

Merlin said...

I would probably not see this version of "Rent", but is there any word on a cast album. I might get that out of curiousity.

courtney said...

Hi, just letting you know I finally checked back, and thank you for answering my questions!