I first saw Rent in its 2005 film incarnation, directed by Chris Columbus. It’s an experience I wouldn’t want to repeat any time soon. The film was a mess; a weak storyline populated by unbelievable and annoying characters. I wondered at the time if the film indicated what I could expect from the stage play.

Last week, after 11 years of hearing and reading about the theatrical version of Rent, the show finally made its debut on a South African stage; directed by one of the original New York cast members (Anthony Rapp). It’s opened at the newly refurbished Alexander Theatre, which had been previously mothballed, in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

What became immediately clear is that the musical works a treat in the theatre. Columbus made the surprisingly amateurish mistake of attempting to replicate the stage version within the film medium. His loving faithfulness to his source is at the root of the film’s failure.

A number of the show’s songs really come to life on stage – they were crafted for maximum impact here. I dare anyone not to get goose-bumps when the cast breaks out into Seasons of Love or be swept away by the energy of La Vie Boheme. There are some wonderfully crafted pieces in this musical. The arrangements, overseen by Musical Director Bryan Schimmel, are often quite brilliant.

This is not to say that Rent the musical itself is without flaws. The first act is relatively well paced, but the second half is rushed, sketchy and covers a much longer period of time – to its detriment. The exuberance of the piece, however, manages to mask many of these narrative shortfalls.

Rent tells the story of a group of young friends living in an abandoned New York building trying to make ends meet while reaching for their dreams. It’s refreshing to experience a Broadway musical that is not only about sweeping fairy-tale romantic themes, but features lesbian and gay couples, the subjects of drug addiction and AIDS and even the word fuck. It’s not groundbreaking or revelatory in any real sense, but Rent is about as gritty and radical as Broadway gets.

It is sung from start to finish, which can make following the storyline a little difficult. This requires a balance between the demands of the melody and the need to ensure that the audience understands what is being said.

In this area, a number of the South African cast members struggle. They are required to accomplish this already testing speak-singing, but with the added burden of maintaining an American accent. For those in the cast for whom English is not their first language, the challenge is even greater. Then again, with the growing number of American-set musicals flooding our stages I won’t be surprised if our acting fraternity will soon be permanently americanised in their speaking.

Sadly, the most obvious weakness in this production of Rent is indeed in its performances. A musical like this one lives and dies on the basis of the vocal ability of its cast, and in this regard the production displays an uneven ensemble.

The standout members include Shaun V, as Roger Davis, whose singing dismisses any concerns about an otherwise slightly one-note performance. His voice is soulful and moving – able to bring the audience to tears. Aubrey Poo as Tom Collins also impresses with his impassioned singing, as does the always gutsy voice of Ilse Klink (seen recently in Menopause) in the role of Joanne Jefferson. Zane Gillion may not have the most powerful of vocal chords, but they are perfect for the role of Angel, and his performance is a blast.

On the opposite end of the spectrum Tali Kodesh lets the production down. She simply doesn’t have the spunky presence or the vocal prowess required for the role of femme fatale Mimi Marquez, and she was at times grindingly off-key and screechy. It may have been first night jitters, but she appears to have been a significant casting miss-step. Sivan Raphaely (Maureen Johnson) and Duane Alexander (Mark Cohen) are generally competent with occasional strong moments.

An actor friend of mine recently expressed the opinion that we simply don’t have enough quality performers to sustain the current boom of big-budget stage musicals. I don’t know if this is indeed the case, but if so, we should then not be staging them. When people put down their money for a show with a considerable international reputation, they should rightly expect international standard performances.

That said, Rent is often a remarkable production, worth seeing for its highlights, not avoiding because of its low-points. When Rent reaches its highs, it will entertain and move you deeply. Concerns that it may have dated since its 90’s origin are largely unfounded; if ever there has been the need to celebrate a little of ‘La Vie Boheme’, it is in these times of unchallenging big-budget theatre spectacle.

Here’s to, “Bisexuals, trisexuals, homo sapiens, carcinogens, hallucinogens, men, Pee Wee Herman, German wine, turpentine, Gertrude Stein, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Kurosawa, Carmina Burana…”

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