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29 Nov 2005


The Phantom of the Opera might have his Old World glamour. Miss Saigon might have her descending helicopter and her me-love-you-long-time exoticness. What Rent has is Karen Mok - scream, everyone - and an eclectic cast of characters whose trials and tribulations you will not easily forget.

Venue: Various, Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul and Taiwan

Director: Michael Greif
Cast: Karen Mok, Jeremy Kushnier, Trey Ellet, John Eric Parker, Daryle C. Brown, Andy Senor, Danielle Lee, Caren Lyn Manuel

In the Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning musical Rent, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a world tour, focuses on the trials and tribulations of a community of artists in bohemian New York. Hong Kong star Karen Mok plays the role of Mimi, an exotic dancer and HIV-positive junkie.

Passionate. Raw. Riveting.

These are just some of the catchwords circulating amongst the accolades adorning productions after productions of the Broadway musical sensation that Rent is. Yours truly can't really beg to differ.

Inspired by Puccini's La boh�me, Rent reworks Puccini's original vision into a rock opera celebrating the dreams and aspirations of a group of struggling artists living in the dirt and downtrodden-ness of New York Bohemia. Rent turns the Grime into Glam, but the issues which it deals with remain painfully real: HIV, drugs, the misery of living under a system that offers limited choices to those who have dreams of living life differently - with more guts, honesty and passion - heck, in the only way one can possibly imagine living. Throw in a lesbian couple and a gay one - the sweetest homosexual pairing ever as far as musicals go - and Rent is an instant hit with any self-respecting GLBT audience. It is worth mentioning that at the time of its world premiere in 1996, Rent was a rarity amongst Broadway productions as it featured some of the first clearly gay, transgender, bisexual and lesbian characters on stage. Prior to its inception, theatre productions having similar characteristics or themes were often relegated to off-Broadway venues. Its creator, Jonathan Larson, who passed away unfortunately in 1996, won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama together with the Tony for Best Musical in the same year.

Mark and Roger are roommates in a shabby East Village apartment. Mark (a geeky cool Trey Ellet) is an aspiring filmmaker, while Roger (Jeremy Kushnier) is a musician who dreams of writing that one song that will cement his fame and bring him everlasting glory. Roger is HIV-positive. He is fighting against time and his own personal demons.

In fact, everyone in the diverse cast has a hang-up or two. Joanne and Maureen is one lesbian couple that can never stop bickering. Maureen, with her babedelicious body, is a constant source of emotional insecurity for the slightly pudgy Joanne, a civil rights lawyer who not only had to contend with the constant threats imposed by the authorities to shut down the apartment building in which they live, but also has to fend off suspicions of Maureen sleeping around behind her back. It is not difficult to sympathise with the emotional plight of Joanne (a charming Danielle Lee) considering the performer who plays Maureen, Caren Lyn Manuel, is hot hot hot! Girls, don't say I haven't warned you.

Amidst the implosion of angst on stage, only Angel (a lovely, lovely, lovely Andy Senor) has the inborn grace to transcend the grit to become, literally, an angel amidst the squalors. Angel is Rent's resident drag, but her (yes her, mind you) presence is certainly not one. Whether dressed in a Santa Claus coat or as Pussy Galore in a jacket fashioned out of shower curtain, Angel always exudes a regal charisma driven by an inner� goodness? To her, the Alphabet City is one big winter wonderland in which she plays the role of a fairy godmother to all the dejected, and she makes her rounds doing good (and tricks) always with her hair not one strand out of place. And though she is never confrontational like most of her hotheaded comrades, when the situation calls for her sarcasm her words do sting with the precision of a Florence Nightingale overly adept with needles. Her death from AIDS in the musical's second act left the hearts of both her longtime companion and the audience truly heart-broken.

Ms Karen Mok: ''It doesn't matter whether one is gay or lesbian - everyone has an equal claim to love, which is independent of one's sexuality.''

As much as I would like to keep the superlatives equal on both sides of the gender, I must admit that the show really belongs to the girls. Perhaps it is a gay thing to be always attuned to anything divaesque, especially on stage. With Rent, distractions become hard to come by for it is itself a flaming queen of a musical that screams "Diva!" at every change of lighting! Aside from the hilarious coupling of Joanne and Maureen, Karen Mok (scream cue) as Mimi the exotic dancer scores another for the girls. She more than held her own against the cast of theatre-trained professionals from New York: her voice is truly one of the most distinct amongst the non-Asian cast. Then again, anyone who has attended her sold-out concerts in Asia would have no problem agreeing to her vocal prowess.

Though this 10th anniversary production has not invested a new lease of life into its staging, with the direction remaining more or less competent under Michael Greif, the performers retained the energy and passion so central to their characters, without which the musical would be mediocre at best. It is through the trials and tribulations of these characters brought stunningly to life on stage that Rent indents itself upon the hearts of the audience. Their stories of love and loss, hopes and dreams, remain unforgettable. Through their dejection and social displacement we are intimated with an understanding of our own sufferance in a society that still does not possess - not enough, that is - the broadness of spirit nor the maturity of mind to embrace homosexuality as a faultless way of life. It remains, euphemistically, an "alternative lifestyle."

Indeed, Rent has a lot of heart - despite not having any programmes available during any of its performances in Singapore - and much kudos to the committed performances of the cast. As a last word, let me paraphrase the words of Ms Karen Mok to us at Fridae during a post-show t�te-�-t�te: it doesn't matter whether one is gay or lesbian - everyone has an equal claim to love, which is independent of one's sexuality. How Diva is that? It's simply Divine!

Rent plays in Singapore at the Kallang Theatre till Dec 4, followed by Hong Kong from 13-25 Dec 2005 at the Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts; and afterwhich Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul and Taiwan.

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