Principal cast: Calvin Millado (Roger Davis), JM Rodriguez (Mark Cohen), Rachel Alejandro (Mimi Marquez), Michael De Mesa (Tom Collins), Anna Fegi (Maureen Johnson), Jake Macapagal (Angel Schunard), Pam Oei (Joanne Jefferson), and Brendon Marc Fernandez (Benjamin Coffin III)
Ensemble: Asha, Boyd Tinio, Bertrice Gomez, Joel Trinidad, Richard Chia, Carlo Ledesma, and Glory Sicam
Director: Bobby Garcia
Music and lyrics: Jonathan Larson
It is a long-held belief that Jonathan Larson’s wildly-successful musical Rent will never make it to Singapore. Imagine my surprise when the Singapore Repertory Theatre actually decides to do just that – bring the Filipino production to Singaporean shores. For a moment I am afraid that they may just as well change the lesbian couple Maureen and Joanne into Maureen and John and the gay couple Tom and Angel to Tom and Angela – Singapore is one big anus when it comes to censorship – but no. Common sense rules and a Restricted to Adults Only or R(A) label is tagged to this musical.
A friend who has seen the original London production mentioned during the break that the SRT has toned down the scenes of drug usage, but surprisingly, the sexual innuendos and even the pantomimes of sodomy and all remain pretty much intact. I guess the usually anal authorities believe that homosexuality and bisexuality are the lesser demons compared to drug abuse for pristine, pure Singapore.
So I’ll just show the censors one middle finger of mine instead of two.
Anyway, back to the musical. Time and critics haven’t been kind to Rent – it is really too popular and accessible for its own good. Sarah Schulman’s attack on the late Mr Larson for ripping off his ideas from her own novel People in Trouble pretty much completes the job. Rent is a hack play, distorting history of AIDS and suffering for the sake of feel-good melodrama. But that silly argument is as ridiculous as the accusation that the movie Titanic is crap because it concentrates on a fictitious couple’s love story instead of people dying on the ship. If I want to see people dying from AIDS, I’ll watch a documentary, thank you very much.
There’s something subversive about it. Sure, critics rage that the main story is predominantly that of a straight couple Mimi and Roger and the gay couples are pushed to the background, but face it honey, if it’s a full tale of gay people dying and screaming from AIDS and all, nobody who’s not an arty-farty fan of tragedies will watch. Rent lures the heterosexual majority into watching the play, probably relating to Mimi and Roger the most, but they cannot escape the implied message that Tom and Angel and Maureen and Joanne – everyone straight, bisexual, gay, whatever – everyone’s human and confused.
The spectacular ode to anarchy, La Vie Boheme, is not just a tribute to misfits, it also presents a world where the breeders and the gay folks sing and dance in united celebration. In fact, Rent is a story where one’s sexuality is taken in a matter-of-fact manner.
Rent chronicles the lives of a group of penniless, determined bohemians of 11th Street Avenue B. Mark is an aspiring filmmaker who shares a freezing loft with his equally penniless and former rock star fresh from rehab friend Roger. Roger is HIV positive. Mark’s ex, Maureen, has dumped him for lawyer Joanne. Maureen, Roger, and Mark are facing eviction when they can’t meet the rent as demanded by their former roommate-turned-corporate yuppie scum Benjamin (Benny). On Christmas eve, Maureen is planning a protest performance, and Benny tells Mark and Roger he will waive their rent if they convince Maureen to cancel her performance. They show him the finger.
Their friend and rolling stone computer genius Tom Collins. meanwhile, stops by for a visit and gets beaten up by thugs. A street performer and crossdresser Angel finds him and they discover a mutual HIV+ condition and an attraction forms.
And Mimi Marquez, junkie and also HIV+, dances and tempts her way to Roger’s reluctant heart. But between her drug addiction and his fear of losing another lover to AIDS, they have a long way to go. And Joanne, self-absorbed drama queen Maureen’s neurotic lover, has to deal with her lover’s excesses and her own insecurities.
These men and women sing and dance and show their collective fingers to rules and order. The title track is an rockish, inspiring call for arms against society. They roar:
How do you keep the past behind?
When it keeps finding ways to get to your heart
It reaches way down deep and tears you inside out
‘Til you’re torn apart – rent!
How can you connect in an age
Where strangers, landlords, lovers, your own blood cells betray
What binds the fabric together
When the raging, shifting winds of change keep ripping away?
Draw a line in the sand and then make a stand –
Use your camera to spar!
Use your guitar – when they act tough, you call their bluff!
But underneath their bravado, insecurities and fear of death and the loss of one’s control simmer and seethe. Mr Larson’s genius is the use of spectacular, always listenable, and catch-you-by-your-fucking-guts music with devastating hooks. Insecurity, acute loneliness, and loss of one’s individuality in a giant, cold city of concrete and steel, the painful need to belong and connect, and the defiance at one’s fate – all are chronicled in vivid and even painful details in music and song.
So the ending is pure schmaltz and the use of Angel as the All-Wise Gay Martyr figure can be irritating – but I can’t deny I cried buckets at the inspiring finale or at Roger’s touching declaration of love to Mimi. Rent doesn’t aim just at the cerebrum – it aims at the heart, which most intellectual critics puke at. But the audience – me included – don’t give a damn.
Does the SRT live up to expectations? Well, mostly yes.
The predominantly Filipino cast does succeed in a way to bring life to this play, although they do start off a bit stiff.
JM Rodriguez is perfectly cast as Mark, his boyish handsome looks and goofy grin and all. His voice is clear and that man surely can sing, although his clean tenor lacks the cynical edge imbued by the original (and some say definitive) Mark Cohen actor Anthony Rapp. He grins and takes the audience into fits of laughter easily, especially during his Mark’s petty savaging of Joanne’s ego in mambo-tinged The Tango Maureen. His sense of timing and easy presence on stage aren’t surprising – Mr Rodriguez is a veteran celebrity on ABS-CBN despite being just 26 years old.
Calvin Millado is another music biz celebrity in the Philippines, but he is obviously stiff (I mean his acting is stiff, excuse me) during the first act. He plays Roger like a tragic, noble hero, all macho and bluster. Unfortunately, his rendition of Roger’s true moment of glory, One Song Glory is noticeably off because of his – nervousness? The high notes are off, and I can’t help but to miss the original Roger, Adam Pascal’s sexy, husky growl. Mr Millado noticeably eases into his role by the time he dances the mischievous foreplay with Mimi in Light My Candle, but it’s a shame it’s too late, because One Song Glory is the definitive song of Roger’s. This beautiful song describes the man’s tortured psyche perfectly, his defeated strains eventually giving way to defiant exuberance (“Glory – one blaze of glory!”). That is Roger’s song, and Mr Millado missed it.
And Mimi, well, she is played by the beautiful, angelic Rachel Alejandro. Unfortunately, her idea of Mimi seems to be that of a beautiful, waifish woman. A big mistake. Mimi is a hardened, street-wise woman whose beauty is in all probability ninety-percent corruption and ten-percent unadulterated sexual heat. Not this sweet-faced, wide-eyed, innocent-looking Mimi. Hence, the red-hot Out Tonight, Mimi’s definitive fuck-you-all moment, is way, way off. Ms Alejandro sounds as if she’s Britney Spears trying her best to play streetwalker. Out Tonight, which brings back all the excesses of the dance scene of early 1980’s (Flashdance, Body Rock), needs the raw infusion of sex and heedy desperation for the need to forget life in a moment of dance, one that isn’t served up at all.
On the other hand, this Filipino songstress is in her element during Mimi’s vulnerable moments. Her rendition Without You is heartbreaking, and her line “Hello, disease” in Goodbye Love can break even the staunchest of heart and the driest of eyes. She has perfect chemistry with Mr Millado, though, and their playful overtures in Light My Candle can burn the stage.
Meanwhile, Michael De Mesa’s Tom and Jake Macapagal’s Angel steal the show. Both just shine, especially Mr Macapagal who plays Angel with all the right camp and flash. His diction isn’t always clear, but he more than compensates for his chilling yet campy solo in the hedonistic Contact (I’m surprised they didn’t cut this song out!). But really, Mr De Mesa and Mr Macapagal shine best in their love duet, I’ll Cover You (is there any more perfect a love song?), displaying enough charm and tenderness between each other. Some morons in the audience go “Eeuw!” when they kiss, but I think the smile they share after the kiss is the most romantic thing I’ve seen in a while.
And yeah, despite Mr De Mesa’s lack of professional singing in his resume, he blows me away with his strong, steady baritone.
Unfortunately, his and Mr Macapagal’s sound system are the most bug-ridden in the cast. There are times when their parts are inaudible, and that is infuriating as they are the best thing about this musical.
Pam Oei is horribly miscast as Joanne. She just doesn’t have the range to handle Joanne’s lines, and Mr Larson intended Joanne to deliver the high ad-lib lines. Bad mistake. Ms Oei plays Joanne adequately, but without any distinguishable memorable trait. Her lines in I’ll Cover You (Reprise) and Will I (this one completely massacred when the sound system of the third and fourth quartet break down and the song just comes off awful) go to Asha, a member of the ensemble with a wider vocal range. Why can’t Asha be cast as Joanne instead? The mind boggles.
But Anna Fegi is brilliant as the self-absorbed Maureen. Her really over-the-top rendition of Over the Moon has us all mooing with her in between hysterical fits of laughter. Her voice is stunning, and it’s not surprising to find out that she is a professional singer. Pair her with Ms Oei’s inadequate vocals in the Maureen-Joanne spat Take Me or Leave Me and the result is cacophony.
Oh yes, the cast completely massacred Will I, probably because of the shaky sound system, and their Rent is subdued, but boy, do they finally come to life in Christmas Bells. The part where everybody just sing simultaneously about everything from smacks and haggling for coats and white Christmases and not holding hands – this cast succeeds beautifully; I can actually make sense of who’s singing what.
The cast make take a while to loosen up, but by the final inspiring refrains of Finale B, the one where the guys sing “No day but today” and the ladies sing “I’ll die without you” simultaneously, I am crying. Mr Millado and Ms Alejandro’s sizzling chemistry only drives home the tragedy when Mimi “dies” and Roger weeps. Roger’s tribute to Mimi, Your Eyes, is actually a pale shadow of the really powerful One Song Glory, but Mr Millado’s emotional delivery drives home the impact perfectly. Hand me my hankies, it’s so beautiful and heart wrenching, the scenes of the finale. When Mimi sings softly, “I should tell you, I should tell you…” oh, Ms Alejandro’s beautiful a-waif-is-dying delivery just hurts.
At the end of the day, they may start out a bit off, but they deserve every second of the applause from me and the rest of the audience by the end. Blatantly manipulative, absolutely cathartic, and an overblown romance masquerading as a cynical look at bohemia – that’s Rent.