February 6th. 7PM. Greenwich Mean Time. Opening night. Zoom in on the Brian Friel Theatre, an audience waiting to see a rendition of their favourite musical, RENT. We’re expecting humour, romance, heartbreak and an eye-opener towards poverty and the devastating effect of drugs and HIV on New York’s Bohemian Alphabet City in the late 1980’s. Not to mention lush harmonies, rock and roll angst and exuberant musical numbers. Expectations are high, and fortunately Queen’s Musical Theatre Society (QMTS) are able to deliver.
If you haven’t seen the play or the movie, here’s a bit of background. RENT is inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s opera La boheme, written by Jonathan Larson, documenting the lives of artists and anarchists struggling against capitalism and the epidemic of HIV/AID’s that devastated impoverished communities, as well as the LGBT+ community, in the late 80’s. It has a massive cult following, and was recently reimagined in RENT Live on Fox in America (not very well, might I add). After watching that train-wreck, I was ready for the songs of RENT to be given justice vocally, and the members of QMTS in my opinion did a much better job at capturing the dynamic elements of the songs where RENT Live lacked.
Some praise for the leading cast is definitely in order, and QMTS should be proud of every member. Niall Brooks and Zak Phillips did a great job at playing Mark and Roger. They gave an energy to the beginning musical numbers that the rest of the cast relayed throughout. Mark’s lovable nerdy side contrasted well with the rough-cut edge of Roger, and gave a vocal chemistry to the opening number RENT that made me excited for the rest of the musical.
Adam Cooper as Benny was the perfect mixture of formidable and smug: we can see how he was once good but has been corrupted by capitalist values, while also trying to look out for his friends in the only way he knows. His polished costume and vocals contrast with the rough grime of the rest of the cast, showing us how far they have fallen.
Next, Shonagh Forbes’ portrayal of Mimi, bringing an attitude to the role that made the character her own. I was impressed by QMTS’ use of the elevated space in the Brian Friel Theatre to emulate the New York scaffolding, and was even more impressed by Shonagh’s ability to carry one of the more difficult numbers in the musical. She smashed every note in Out Tonight while dancing in heels, and was able to retain this energy in Another Day. This was my personal favourite moment; Shonagh and Zak’s rendition of this song was beautiful and captured the heartfelt nature and message of RENT that I believe makes the musical unique.
Aaron McAnulty’s performance as Angel frankly put Valentina to shame (a contestant in Ru Paul’s Drag Race who portrayed Angel in RENT Live). Angel is such an important role, and Aaron imbued a precociousness balanced only with kindness, and slayed Today 4 U, making the audience so invested in his character that they would be devastated later on (no spoilers). Costuming for Angel also deserves commendation, as they were able to capture Angel’s thrifty and resourceful nature while also letting her look no less than fabulous. When Angel reappeared at the end, it did not go amiss that while she lost a part of her identity in the white hospital robes, we see a glimmer of it through her red nail polish.
Aaron and Patrick D’Arcy (the society’s president) sang I’ll Cover You perfectly, and Patrick’s version of the reprise was truly heart-wrenching. Capturing the deep baratone vocals of Tom Collins, and his vulnerability contrasted with strength, Patrick truly deserves praise.
Last but not least, Maureen and Joanne were truly hilarious to behold. Abi Paxton (Joanne) and Saorlaoith Brady (Maureen), bounced off each-other so well, the stubbornness of one both clashing perfectly with the other, delivering the characters we know so well. Over the Moon was the perfect debut for Maureen as eccentric, talented and a little bit vain, but overall problematic and lovable, a performance worthy of that of Idina Menzel. Take Me or Leave Me was the perfect battle of egos, and the vocal matching of both girls was incredible. With big boots to fill on both parts, Abi and Saorlaoith truly succeeded at portraying such pig-headed but lovable characters in all their flawed glory.
The ensemble cast deserve a pat on the back too. It is no mean feat to undertake such complicated and over-the-top numbers such as La Vie Boheme and Seasons of Love that are so well known and feature so many different harmonies, especially amid the technical difficulties of opening night. They also sang Will I with a reverence and grace that was truly tear-jerking. Their multi-layered talent provided a consistent vocal backdrop that was the making of this rendition, and are the backbone of this wonderful show.
Thanks to QMTS for letting me nerd out about one of my favourite musicals for a night, and for portraying the characters so well. Megan and her cast did so well, and a night with QMTS is highly recommended to all.
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