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THE thing about the musical Rent is, if you love it, you love it with a passion. And you're willing to ignore minor production hiccups because the songs sweep you off your feet again and again.
This reviewer happens to love it after seeing it in New York many moons ago. And he's happy to report that the new Pangdemonium production is an extremely competent one - certainly one of the most competent he's seen outside of New York.
In Singapore, Rent has been staged at least twice before, first by Singapore Repertory Theatre in 2001, and then by show promoter YDL in 2005, starring Hong Kong's Karen Mok.
But Pangdemonium's production directed by Tracie Pang surpasses them both on many counts. Musically, Rent has never sounded better on these shores. Pang has assembled strong singer-actors accompanied by a fine orchestra led by Joel Nah. The acoustics of Drama Centre Theatre is also far superior to that of the dreadful Kallang Theatre where the 2005 production was staged.
Notably too, Pang's cast is largely Singaporean, with the rest of its members hailing from Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and the US. The two previous productions relied on Filipino and American talents respectively, so this new cast attests to the growing talent pool in Singapore.
And boy, what a cast! Decked out in Moe Kassim's costumes with make-up by Bobbie Ng and hair by Ashley Lim, these actors are incredibly photogenic and, more importantly, can belt out a number.
Rent debuted off-Broadway in 1996, one day after its composer and playwright Jonathan Larson died of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35. It would go on to play at the bigger Nederlander Theatre on Broadway for 5,132 performances, win both the Tony and Pulitzer, and make TV stars out of its cast which included Jesse L Martin, Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs.
Inspired by Puccini's La Boheme, the story is set in 1989 in New York City's East Village where a group of struggling bohemian artists live under the scourge of AIDS. Even if stricken with HIV, they dream of making great art and finding love and fulfilment.
Benjamin Chow, the brightest young musical talent to emerge in recent years, shines as aspiring filmmaker Mark chronicling their lives. His best friends Roger and Collins are played by the excellent Cameron MacDonald and Juan Jackson.
Tabitha Nauser, former Singapore Idol contestant-turned-radio DJ, is smoking hot as Mimi the exotic dancer. Fetching Aaron Khaled plays drag queen Angel with the requisite charisma. Meanwhile, the always impressive Mina Kaye and Frances Lee play lovers Maureen and Joanne.
The ebullient performances, even by the minor players, and the upbeat rock score stand in sharp contrast to the grim reality of being HIV-infected and penniless in 1989. But the musical ultimately attests to the power of the human spirit in overcoming life's great tragedies.
Of course, not everyone gets Rent. Some call it faux-edgy, hooey-hip or just plain ridiculous to have HIV victims burst into song and dance. But what's so believable about singing stray cats or disfigured composers living under opera houses? So really, you either love this stuff or you don't.
But, if you do, give yourself a treat and get the best seats in the house.
Find out more at btsub.sg/btdeal