Rent (Matt Ward Entertainment)
Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre
February 1 – 11
Following on from a triumphant 15th anniversary showcase of the songs from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” by Electric Moon, Brisbane Powerhouse’s Melt Festival is also featuring a 20th anniversary production of Jonathan Larson’s ground-breaking “Rent”, the “Hamilton” of its day. The Pulitzer Prize winning rock musical has certainly stood the test of time, due not only to its story (based loosely on Puccini’s “La Boheme”) of a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and create a life in New York’s East Village under the shadow of HIV/AIDS, but its memorable music. And for those familiar with its soundtrack, this production provides a wonderful musical revisit. Those unfamiliar with the classic of musical theatre, however, would be better served by a more consistent treatment as introduction.
Typically, “Rent” is a big show, usually staged in spacious surrounds of scaffolding and platforms to represent the coarseness and noise of 1980s Alphabet City, Manhattan, like in last year’s acclaimed Beenleigh Theatre Group production, so it was surprising to see this version taking place in the Powerhouse’s Visy Theare. And when the cast comes into the crowd during both its storyline and songs, the effect is more claustrophobic than intimate. The problem too with the Visy Theatre is that with the audience seated on three sides of the stage, microphone fails mean that performer’s words are completely lost when their back is turned. And this happened a lot on opening night, from the first number, throughout all of Act One and even after intermission with microphone crackles of loss of sound significantly affecting the experience of many of the show’s iconic moments, such as its celebration of bohemianism and all its ideas, trends and symbols, ‘La Vie Bohème’.
With its contemporary rock score, “Rent” is a magnet to young performers who mostly deliver in this case. As drag queen percussionist Angel Dumott Schunard, Tom Davis’ strong, nuanced performance is a standout, especially in couple with Luke Hodgson as anarchist and part-time professor at New York University, Tom Collins. Their relationship is intimate from the beginning and their touching ‘I’ll Cover You’ proclamation of love is a show highlight, despite its shaky tech start. Jackson McGovern and Chris White anchor things as roommates, Jewish-American documentary filmmaker and narrator Mark Cohen and striving musician Roger Davis, however, others sometimes struggle in embodying more than just their character’s physicality.
As sexy club dancer and drug addict Mimi Marquez, Jacqui McLaren’s vocals fail to reach the usual heights of her self-destructive attempted seduction of Roger in ‘Out Tonight’ and humble the usually powerfully vulnerable song of love and loneliness, ‘Without You’. The band is excellent in its pumping orchestration, however, especially in the swelling sounds of the ‘Finale B’ compilation company number and it is good to see them showcased at back of stage.
With its story of life and living, and messages about forgetting regret, valuing the love in your life and keeping in mind that every day is a gift, as represented by the repeated lyric ‘no day but today’, “Rent” is a perfect work for inclusion in the Melt Festival celebration of queer arts and culture. This take doesn’t shy away from its sometimes confrontation sex and drugs subject matter, instead balancing it with pathos and the shared silence that follows Act Two’s ‘I’ll Cover You’ reprise and reminiscence. But with a sold-out season, it will need to improve its tech significantly. With that, it has the potential to be both the combined celebration of themes and music that it should be.
Thankfully, Act Two is an improvement, allowing Ruby Clark as flirty performance artist Maureen and Aurelie Roque as her Ivy League-educated on-again off-again lawyer girlfriend Joanne, to showcase their talent in the feisty, accusatory ‘Take Me or Leave Me’, making the dramatic break-up number absolutely their own. And the seminal ‘Seasons of Love’ hits all the right notes. While it showcases the ensemble’s joyous energy, enthusiasm and commitment, however, it also reveals how underused some of the support players are, with Hannah Grondin, for example, sharing standout vocals.
By its mere nature, “Rent” is a great example of grass roots theatre, at-once heart-wrenching and life-affirming. It’s a big show in many ways and always a popular choice, if the rousing applause on opening night is any indication. 20 years after it first premiered off Broadway it clearly still has the capacity to rock an audience, given the right combination of on-point tech and talent.