Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Rent in Concert - St David's Hall, Cardiff - Monday 29th April

*contains spoilers* 

I "discovered" Rent about 5 years ago. I'd heard of it before then, obviously, but I didn't watch it until I came across the film on the shelf of the library I worked at and thought I'd give it a go. Like most people, all I knew about the story was that it was about aids.

As the credits rolled, the tears rolled with them and I realised what I thought I knew was wrong - it's not a story about aids at all, it's a story about love and friendship. Of course aids features as part of the story vehicle but it's not the point of the show.

With it's rocking, punchy music and touching story, Rent immediately got added to my list of favourite musicals. Knowing it's history of not doing so well in the UK and then it closing on Broadway a few years ago, I thought I'd never get to see it on stage (at least not a professional version anyway). I bought the dvd of the last show and thought that's as close as I would get.

So, when I saw that a concert version was making its way to a venue near me, there was no way I was missing out.

As a concert, celebrating 20 years of the musical, I wasn't sure what to expect as far as scenic and technical elements were concerned. I knew it wouldn't be fully staged but they've done a good job of trying to capture the feel of the original show. There is a basic set made from 3 levels of steel deck and LED screens border the stage. In typical rock musical fashion, this creates the atmosphere of being in a sweaty, grungy nightclub.

There were a few technical difficulties and the show did have to be stopped half way through the first act to correct lighting problems - there were moments actors had been left singing in the dark and lighting states that simply weren't fitting for the moment.

I'm sure that the challenge of touring this show to a new venue every night makes getting these elements plotted and programmed in an afternoon a real race against the clock. The Stage Manager came on stage to apologise and said for our enjoyment, it was only fair they stop the show and fix the problems. Which they did, so you can't say fairer than that. These things will happen with live theatre.

The actors and musicians were all very professional in dealing with this disruption and came back onstage and picked up from the exact chord they'd left on!

The production was well cast with the exception of Kerry Ellis - she's a fabulous singer but far too clean cut and pure for a role like Mimi, who's grungy, edgy and an addict. There's also the small point that her character is meant to be Latin American, and though you may say "that doesn't matter, it's creative licence" - it does matter when it's written into the character profile - she sings about it in 'Out Tonight'. It seems like she was cast simply because she's Kerry Ellis.

I was concerned about Rory Taylor for the same reason. Having been on ITV's 'Search for a Superstar' I wondered whether he was stunt cast too. In this case, though - whether that was the reason or not - it worked out perfectly. He has a rocky vibe to his look and voice anyway so was a natural fit for Roger and he's not too bad to look at either.

Paul Ayres is also an easy fit for Mark, bringing an edge of awkward, nerdy gawkiness alongside a like-ability that is essential for his character.

Jemma Alexander and Nikki Davis-Jones play the tempestuous lesbian couple Joanne and Maureen respectively. They have great chemistry together and are fully believable as a couple. Jemma Alexander shows what she's made of during the song 'We're Okay' where Joanne multitasks several telephone calls all through song. Nikki Davis-Jones had us all mooing along with her for an amusing rendition of 'Over the Moon' while cute animations played on the LED screen behind her. Their duet 'Take Me or Leave Me' was a highlight.

The star couple, though, had to be Leon Lopez as Collins and Ian Stroughair as Angel. Even when they weren't the main focus of the scene they can be found "canoodling" in the background and they are the perfect sweet couple together. This love between them absolutely is important for the devastating moment where Angel is taken by the disease that many of them are battling.

Although the main focus is, naturally, on the central characters, all of the ensemble have that magnetic pull of focus when they're on stage and it's the scenes with everyone in that are the best moments. You can tell everyone is loving being part of the rent family.

A last thought - if you don't know the story I would recommend watching the film first. Due to it being a concert, there's not an awful lot of scene setting and I overheard some people in the toilet queue talking about how confused they were. If you don't have time to watch the film between now and going to see the show, there is a 2 page synopsis in the front of the programme which would be beneficial to give a quick read before the show begins - you don't want to miss out on the subtler details because you're struggling to follow the plot!

Rent in Concert has a very limited run, so try and catch it while you can. Please check the website for remaining venues and to book tickets http://rentinconcert.co.uk/

Monday, 22 April 2013

Ghost the Musical on Tour - Wales Millennium Centre - Saturday 20th April 7.30pm

The great thing about touring shows is I can share the shows I love with my family who aren't theatre obsessed like me. After discovering Ghost last year, I've been raving about it ever since. It's an exciting new level of theatre and I was anxious for everyone to see it. I wanted them to see the same show I loved, though, and tours are often radically scaled down versions of it's initial incarnation.

This worry was unfounded, however. The set has been kept almost to the exact specifications of the original. The one thing I really noticed that was missing was the 'travelator' as it became known - the conveyor belt that runs across the downstage area. I missed it, but if you've never seen the London version you wouldn't know any different. The special effects and illusions are still breathtaking and flawless - my mum hasn't stopped talking about the door scene and the effect of the subway. She said "it's the best special effects she's ever seen in a show".

I won't go into my set design interpretation here - see my original review for that, but I do want to reiterate my defence for it to anyone that accuses it of being technology for technology's sake - think about the themes and subplots before making these accusations! 

There are a couple of changes to the score and I don't think anyone will be surprised or disappointed to learn one of these is 'Ball of Wax' which was always glaringly out of place with its awkward change of tone. I still don't feel they've got this moment right with the reworked version of this song still feeling like a poor fit. The other song which has been removed is Carl's song from Act 2 'Life Turns on a Dime'. I actually liked this song, though I know lots of people didn't. In its place, Carl now sings a (somewhat distorted sounding) version of 'Here Right Now' while Molly sings her normal phrase. Maybe it's just because I know how it used to sound, but again it feels awkward. It's good that they've listened to the audience opinions and responded proactively by changing things - this is how theatre develops and grows - but it feels a little rushed. It's as though they've responded with panic to fill these moments by taking musical phrases from elsewhere in the show and remoulding them into something that hasn't properly taken shape.

Honestly, though, that's nitpicking to the nth degree because I can't actually fault it otherwise. As far as touring versions go, this is perfect. To quote my friend, Julie, who watched with me - "I've never seen anything quite like it. It reminds me why I got into the theatre business". I don't think there is higher praise than that; For someone to be inspired by what they've encountered is the greatest compliment.

Stewart Clarke as Sam brings a younger, innocently playful take to the character - a young man just embarking on his adult life. His career and relationship with Molly are strong and his future looks bright. This heightens the injustice of his life cut short.

Rebecca Trehearn was the understudy for Molly during the London run, so was already familiar with the character. Her interpretation was a feistier one but this didn't diminish the vulnerability - if anything it enhances it. Her 'With You' was heartbreaking.

I found it quite hard to fully buy into David Roberts's Carl - although people accused Andrew Langtree's interpretation to be a bit too "panto baddie", I liked it, it worked for me. I felt Roberts was a little lacking in the dripping corporate sleaze that's needed to create the believability that he would risk everything for his personal, materialistic gain.

And then there's Wendy Mae Brown as Oda Mae Brown. What a fabulous role this must be to play and with that name, it seems she was born to play her. She's the light relief in what would otherwise be a dark and heavy show, it's easy to warm to her character. Certainly no saint herself, Oda Mae can con and swindle with the best of the New Yorkers - but underneath it all it hasn't corrupted her soul. I loved Wendy's interpretation, dare I say, more than Sharon D. Clarkes! She’s put more of her own spin on the character rather than being a carbon copy of Whoopi Goldberg's. It was impossible not to laugh out loud.

From the moment the intensity of the overture hits you and you're hurtled across the New York skyline to the lights dimming into a small pool of light downstage on a drained Molly and Oda Mae, you will feel completely blown away! If there's only one touring production you see this year, make it this one. Please.

For tour venues, dates and booking information, please visit the official website http://www.ghostthemusical.com/