Based on Ned Vizzini’s 2004 novel of the same name, it is difficult to watch the musical adaptation without the added poignancy wrought from the knowledge that Vizzini took his own life at the age of thirty-two. He was aware that the musical was being produced – indeed even excited at the prospect. Writer Joe Tracz and composer and lyricist, Joe Iconis, had just finished the first draft when they learned about the author’s death. Sadly, he hadn’t yet heard any of the music, much of which represents Vizzini’s personal struggles.
It’s hard to know how much of the innate sorrow washes over the audience’s head. “Be More Chill” is unquestionably aimed at the younger demographic, and one hopes that it speaks to them more directly than the whoops and cheers that accompany the action suggests. There is a superficiality that belies the subtext and, whilst you cannot ignore the sheer entertainment value of the production, it would be a shame to belittle the significance. As a (slightly) older member of the audience I try to put myself in a younger pair of shoes. Yes, I can argue that there’s nothing ground breakingly new here, but the freshness of Iconis’ music and lyrics, with Tracz’s book pull you in to the story; a pull made more forceful by the strength of the performances.
Stephen Brackett’s production focuses on two high school characters doing their best to try to fit in: Jeremy; who is on a quest to find acceptance, initially with a self-absorbed disregard of anything or anybody else (cue the scope for redemption), and Michael who is more accepting of his oddball status. Jeremy is persuaded to try a new pill called SQUIP (Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor) which imports a supercomputer into the brain and instructs him how to achieve the self-confidence he needs. It is a short cut to the popularity he dreams of but, being a heavy-handed metaphor, comes with the predictable downfalls. Michael is sceptical. What follows is a weird and sometimes wonderful storyline that is a mixture of high school musical and sci-fi fantasy.
Scott Folan’s Jeremy is a perfect mix of charm and angst, susceptibility and awareness. The standout is Blake Patrick Anderson as Michael. The audience cannot fail to be gripped by his show stealing performance, particularly during the most recognisable number, ‘Michael in the Bathroom’. Yet each cast member shines in their own way. Stewart Clarke as the personification of ‘Squip’: an intended pastiche and homage to Keanu Reeves in ‘The Matrix’. Miracle Chance illuminates the stage as love interest, Christine, while Christopher Fry delights as Jeremy’s father – trouser-less but nevertheless still ‘wearing the pants’.
The characters are brought further to life by Alex Basco Koch’s video projections which hypnotically convey the altered states of their minds. There are moments when the narrative steers a bit too close to confusion, but the actors pull it back and through song refocus on the heart of the matter. It’s a show of extremes; of suffering and joy, the agony and ecstasy. It’s initial run Off-Broadway failed to ignite its audience, and it simmered silently for a couple of years. Through word of mouth and YouTube clips the soundtrack eventually hit the charts and a cult phenomenon was born. Paradoxically you can understand both receptions. It is an undeniably addictive show, although I can see why some might want to resist it. But if you can cast aside reservations and learn to ‘be more chill’ it is well worth the ‘trip’.
“At over two hours long, Luke Sheppard’s punchy direction never lets the show drag for a second”
The story behind the inception and eventual opening of “Rent” twenty-five years ago is almost worthy of a musical in itself. Waiting on tables in Manhattan ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ neighbourhood amid the homelessness, punks, addicts and drag queens, young composer Jonathan Larson sweated through the nights writing hundreds of songs, most of which wouldn’t make it to the final cut. When it finally reached its premiere, it attracted press attention on account of opening night falling exactly one hundred years after Puccini’s “La Bohème”, on which “Rent” is loosely based. Leaving the offices of The New York Times, Larson was upbeat, enjoying the dizziness of first night nerves. But that dizziness was concealing a misdiagnosed condition. Larson never made it to the theatre that evening.
Over quarter of a century later Larson’s legacy still continues to burst with energy each time it is revived on the stage. The Hope Mill Theatre’s production is no exception with its intimate and raw staging that is fresh and unique while still remaining faithful to the qualities that powered its original success on Broadway. It’s been a tough journey for the creative team. Scheduled to run this summer, lockdown pushed that back to October, only for it to close after five nights. But before the theatre went dark again it was captured on film by the innovative film company ‘The Umbrella Rooms’ and can now be seen online for a limited period.
The show’s raggle-taggle narrative centres on the tangle of mangled romantic friendships, telling the story of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and avoid eviction; particularly aspiring film maker, Mark, and his song-writer flatmate Roger, who is struggling to complete his ‘one great song’. Characterisation and plot may spend most of the time in the wings, but it is the music that grabs the spotlight, and the fiery dynamism that the cast bring onto the stage. During production, the cast all lived together in a (very noisy) twelve-bedroom house, and the chemistry, conviction and commitment that this would generate clearly shows. Nobody ever leaves the stage, and when not directly in the thick of it the cast watch from the shadows, still acting and reacting.
At over two hours long, Luke Sheppard’s punchy direction never lets the show drag for a second; turbo charged by Musical Director Chris Poon and his pumping five-piece rock band; and Tom Jackson Greaves’ sawtooth sharp choreography. There are a lot of numbers in this show and the cast are on a mission to get through them all. The breathlessness gives way to moments of humour, which in turn bleed into the sad songs, which is where the true emotional kick is felt. Dom Hartley-Harris, as the vagabond anarchist Tom Collins, cuts the atmosphere, and your heart, with a knife during the beautiful ‘I’ll Cover You’ at the funeral of his lover, Angel; powerfully played by the velvet-voiced Alex Thomas-Smith. Millie O’Connell is wonderfully eccentric as experimental performance artist, Maureen, who meets her match in lover Joanne (Jocasta Almgill) during the wonderful ‘Take Me or Leave Me’. Maiya Quansah-Breed’s Mimi commands the space with a sassy swagger weighed down by vulnerability and addiction, while Ahmed Hamad relishes his Ebenezer arc from bad guy to good as Benny. This is a show where the chorus is as crucial as the principals, and the vast array of talent is on clear display throughout. Featured ensemble Kayla Carter, for example, bursts through into the foreground with stunning, soaring vocals during ‘Seasons of Love’, the anthemic opener to the second act.
Central to the story are the joint protagonists, Mark and Roger. Blake Patrick Anderson’s performance illuminates the stage, extremely comfortable and assured with complete control of the soaring notes he aims so high for. Tom Francis is equally memorable as the more brooding songsmith, Roger, eventually finding his muse in Mimi. As he sings the achingly beautiful ‘Your Eyes’ we wonder if it is all too late.
“Rent” is the real Fairy Tale of New York. Exhilarating and poignant. Over a quarter of a century old but still as fresh and timely as ever. “How do you measure a year in a life?” asks the lyrics in the iconic ‘Seasons of Love’. A lot of us are asking how we can measure this past year of ours. Whatever conclusion we make, “Rent” is certainly a fine conclusion to the year in the run up to Christmas, with its relevant, relatable and wretched optimism.