Backed by derelict stained-glass windows and occupied by black scaffolding, Church Hill Theatre’s stage is transformed into a bohemian New York City locale for Edinburgh University Footlights’ production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent. A small circle of musicians comprising the show’s orchestra sits centre stage, as if the instrumentalists’ keyboards and guitars are an organic element of the work’s arty, alternative milieu.
The groundbreaking rock musical, based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème and inspired in part by Larson’s own experiences, centres on a group of friends grappling with the creative process and America’s HIV/AIDS epidemic at the end of the last millennium and striving to live in the present.
There’s aspiring documentarian Mark (Joe Christie); HIV-positive former frontman Roger (Nitai Levi); club-dancer Mimi (Rachel Anderson), Roger’s love interest who is likewise HIV-positive; Collins (Benjamin Aluwijare), a philosophical computer hacker and anarchist professor with AIDS; drag queen Angel (Scott Meenan), Collins’ partner, also living with AIDS; performance artist Maureen (Roz Ford), Mark’s ex; Maureen’s girlfriend, Ivy-educated lawyer Joanne (Caroline Elms); and landlord Benny (Jon Ip), former roommate of Mark, Roger, and Collins.
On the whole, the production, directed by Elske Waite and choreographed by Eleanor Grose, succeeds in conveying the immediacy of the characters’ narratives. Meenan’s performance as Angel is perhaps most salient. Donning a black bobbed wig, tights, and heels, the playful poise he brings to the drag queen’s upbeat numbers, such as “Today 4 U” strikes a powerful contrast with the character’s solemn moments. Note, for instance, the lyrical anguish of the swan song “Contact”. Flanked by duos of embracing dancers, Meenan, sans wig and dressed in a hospital gown, dances about with feverish, pedestrian movements.
Setbacks are minor, stemming mainly from muddled diction during large group numbers – such as the parking lot protest scene near the end of Act One – and, on rare occasions, dropped American accents. In contrast, the vocalisation of one of Rent’s most iconic ensemble songs, “La Vie Bohème” – a glorifying ode to everything from handcrafted beers to Beat poets – is decidedly lucid.
Nonetheless, the cast members keep up with the exhilarating pulses and emotional fluctuations of Larson’s score, especially when their voices are showcased during duets and solos.
Levi’s rendition of “One Song Glory” – Roger’s raw plea for musical inspiration – is chill-inducing, underscoring the desperate yearning layered beneath the character’s rough-around-the-edges rocker persona. Other highlights include “I’ll Cover You”, a tender love song between Collins and Angel, “Take Me or Leave Me”, Maureen and Joanne’s feisty break-up number, and the anthemic “What You Own”, sung by Mark and Roger about their struggles with art and survival. While Christie comes across as somewhat restrained earlier in the show – acting choices that suit an introspective filmmaker – in “What You Own” he, like his character, comes into himself.
The set may be minimalistic, but EU Footlights’ Rent is anything but sparse; this production has its heart on its sleeve at every turn.