>RENT by Singapore Repertory Theatre

>reviewed by adi soon

>date: 14 feb 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the victoria theatre
>rating: *1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

                           
>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.
 

>>>>>playing a part

It was a night when a lifeless and uninspiring cast took on the task of performing that great rock opera RENT. If there was one word that could describe SRT's version of the musical, it would have been "flat". Honestly, if I had just wanted to hear the songs sung, I could have stayed at home with the original cast CD, for when I closed my eyes and listened to the melodic voices from the stage, what I heard was a remarkably close imitation of the original cast recording. That in itself was a treat given the rare occurrence of quality singers on the Singapore stage.

If singing had been the only criteria used to judge the show, I would have given it top marks immediately. Watching it however proved to be a totally different matter. It would have been fine if the show were a concert. It seemed however that the cast was not aware that this was a show with a plot, and that acting was somehow something that needed to be done as well. This was a concern that was evident from the start. The music sounded right and the cast seemed to be doing the right things. Unfortunately the overall effect was deadly boring. With the endings of most of the songs, I found myself watching in stunned disbelief.

Could not director Bobby Garcia have done something about this?

It was a pity as the show had much potential. Having secured a cast of good voices, the next step would have been to bring out the characters. Unfortunately, it seemed that the process was halted there. Rich internal lives so evident in the lyrics were hardly hinted at. Instead flat, lifeless characters populated the stage listening out for the next cue rather than being guided by a visible internal motivation.

What could have been the reason for this? This was a Filipino and Singaporean cast that had been pitched highly in the local press. Why had a show that had combined the best Asian talents faltered in this way?

One reason was the me-centred attitude that each actor seemed to embody. In a story where there are many complex layers, each element has to know its place in relation to the whole. That becomes a consciousness that gels the entire show together. However because each actor seemed to take a "this is my moment" attitude to performance, there was no subtlety in the pitching of the characters. Under these circumstances when everyone wants to outshine everyone else, the story, acting, and most other considerations become secondary. It thus became a stage of show-offs where everyone seemed to be holding mini concerts.

>>'Ensemble member Asha was the only Singaporean who managed to stand out with her soulful voice.'

Another reason was the lack of presence displayed by some of the actors. The Roger/ Mimi relationship, so pivotal to the plot was prevented from taking off by the "flat" portrayal of Calvin Millado as Roger and Rachel Alejandro as Mimi. Appearing in its first half, they failed to anchor the show from the beginning. Faced with the coupling of a pair of actors who obviously had no chemistry with each other, it was difficult to feel engaged in the moving story of the two lovers. Of the two, Alejandro's Mimi was the more awkward. Her entrance in "Light My Candle?" looked as if she had stumbled out of nowhere and furthermore being late with her cues at several moments during the song did nothing to enhance belief in her character. Her attempt at dancing in "Out Tonight" was similarly horrendous as to become embarrassing to watch. Millado's Roger, though slightly better, was not at ease with his character. His body was restricted to a few staple gestures, which had the effect of making him seem wooden. Even their great voices could not salvage what could have been.

The Singaporeans as a whole were a similar story, turning in lacklustre performances despite landing plum roles in the cast. Pamela Oei as Joanne was adequate yet poorly matched against the stronger Maureen and Brendon Fernandez did not have the required presence for a sinister Benny. His voice as well, so obviously weaker than the rest, strained at the higher notes. Richard Chia was similarly unmemorable. In fact, his delivery was so mangled as to render it meaningless. Since what cannot be heard clearly becomes unimportant, it became a real pity considering the polish of the lyrics.

Ensemble member Asha, however, was the only Singaporean who managed to stand out with her soulful voice. Judging by her impressive and brief showings, I hope she will feature more on stage in the future.

 

There were other saving graces to the show of course. The strongest performances of the night were turned in by Michael De Mesa as Collins and Anna Fegi as Maureen. In fact, it was De Mesa's portrayal of Collins that anchored the Collin/Angel relationship so beautifully. An actor with obvious presence, his every appearance on stage was an event to look forward to. Anna Fegi's Maureen was equally captivating. Overflowing with a confidence and a sense of the audience like no other. It was unfortunate however that Maureen makes her appearance half way into the show, and has comparatively few opportunities to be showcased. It would have been great to have seen Fegi given more stage time. In fact it was her presence in "Over the Moon" and "Take Me or Leave Me" that were for me the only applause-inducing moments of the show.

RENT is undoubtedly a very well written musical with superbly polished lyrics. Even watching this version, I could still make out its unrealised potential. Obviously the bags of awards this musical has won is easily justified. Much however has been made by the other media of how this Asian cast has more "heart" than other versions of this show. This in my view is the most surprising statement I have heard given what I saw on stage. Admittedly, I have never seen any other version of RENT before, but even with no prior experience with which to make a comparison, it was obvious that the show lacked in quality through and through. The Straits Times for example, described the show in this manner. A glowing review caused me to enter Victoria theatre with high hopes, unfortunately to realise quite early on that I had wasted money on an $80 ticket.

RENT is a great musical, a general consensus agrees to that. That RENT would be performed on a Singapore stage was a surprise in itself given the homosexual and drug related themes in the show. When all the rumours were finally confirmed, all the anticipation was made more breathless by the smash hit status of the show on Broadway and the critical and commercial acclaim it had engendered. With the hype of its imminent arrival perhaps clear judgement had been clouded as to the quality of the end product.

Perhaps in the end, we should take heed from the words of "Forbidden Broadway" where "Seasons of Love" is transformed into "Seasons of Hype". At least for the SRT version, that was what it was, all hype and no substance.

>(Check out the alternative Inkpot review by Daniel Teo here.)