Theatre review: Rent

Theatre review: Rent

Beats living with your parents

Text: Andre Frois

Image: Crispian Chan,

Pangdemonium's production of Rent brings back Jonathan Larson's script 20 years after its Broadway debut at an opportune time. Here's why

Hyphenates like "multi-award-winning" do not adequately convey the gravity of Rent, the rock musical of 1996 that spawned a cult of obsessed fans named "Rent-heads".

Rent's premise lies from creator Jonathan Larson's 20th century rendition of Giacomo Puccini's Opera La bohème. While Puccini's out-of-the-system libertines lived in deathly fear of tuberculosis, the epidemic of HIV/AIDS in the early '90s coerced Larson to cast his starving artists in the shadow of that era's dreaded disease and stigma.

Around the time when Rent had first been written, my uncle whom I lived with too had contracted AIDS and succumbed to it two years later. Naturally, my family hid his true affliction and sexual orientation from me for decades because of the taboo nature of both issues. Not a square mile of the world was left untouched by this polarising plague, which befits the other meaning of "rent", that is "to tear apart". The misconceptions about GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) were countless, which cumulated with numerous parents neither wanting to see their dying children nor bury them.

While we live in a very different world today, Rent's morals still bear repeating. Just as Pangdemonium is restaging this epic musical on the 20th anniversary of its official opening, scientists are on the cusp of a cure for "the gay disease". Director Tracie Pang takes an intriguing stab at Rent in a time when open homosexuality too has become much more socially accepted.

"I had no particular goals with Rent, except for our production to mean something to the audience," Pang divulged about her iteration of Rent. "We live in dark times of bigotry, racism and fear, and Rent reminds us that love needs to win."

Tabitha Nauser as Mimi
Together with her husband and co-producer Adrian, they assembled a mighty cast well-equipped with the lung capacity and acrobatic ability that this exacting undertaking demanded. Their scintillating singing and synchrony drew the thunderous applause of Pangdemonium's audience on numerous occasions, while the awe-inspiring dancing and athletic feats of the ladies (Tabitha Nauser as exotic dancer Mimi, Mina Kaye as artist Maureen, Frances Lee as lawyer Joanne) and man (Aaron Khaled as drag queen Angel) in heels left indelible memories in the audience's minds.

Would you consider stage acting a sport? The mostly Asian cast pulls this three-hour play off without a hitch with nuanced expressions and compelling emotions that yielded magnified emotional reactions from their viewers. 
Besides an intricate, transforming set that makes one wonder how its crew fit its sizeable components into the lift of the National Library Building, Rent also had a live band to boot, which delivered every note and melody flawlessly.

Pangdemonium's cast for Rent

Larson's story of Rent's rise to fame borders on a real-life Greek tragedy. He had to wait tables to realise his Rent dream, only to die unexpectedly and shortly after its opening, with no chance to relish the seismic ripple effects that his masterpiece and eventual multimillion-dollar franchise would have on the future of Broadway.

AIDS and homophobia might be diminishing in their final stages, but as the Pangs reiterate, xenophobia still very much plagues our supposedly modern world. Instead of logical and oral debate, these are the weapons that Pangdemonium's 2016 staging of Rent wield against the 21st century's many forms of provincialism: Adept acting and resonating storylines which will melt the hearts of even the most contrite of conservatives. Perhaps the mind-widening effect of Rent was why the Pangs repurposed such a story in this new century.

Rent is running from now till 23 October at the National Library's Drama Centre. Book tickets from Sistic here.