Revised Rent

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’.

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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.

Sondheim songs and secrets

Boys of Sondheim (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

February 2 – 4

Stephen Sondheim is not only one of the most significant gay artists of the 20th century but one of the greatest musical theatre composer and lyricists in history. To celebrate the works of the award-winning composer in cabaret-concert is, on its own, a champion idea. To do with a talented cast that includes Kurt Phelan (“Dirty Dancing” Australian tour as Johnny Castle), Sean Andrews (“Phantom of The Opera” the International Asian tour), Tim Carroll (“Grease The Arena Experience” with Harvest Rain), Alexander Woodward (“Grease The Arena Experience” with Harvest Rain), and Stephen Hirst (“Into The Woods”), makes “Boys of Sondheim” more than just a salute to Sondheim’s songs.

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From its jazzy opening sounds, there is a clear intimate, tongue-in-cheek elegance to its share of Sondheim songs that are mostly sung by women, reappropriated and cleverly curated together to guide the audience along an emotional journey of relationships for gay men, from the anxiety of Hirst’s introductory ‘Everyone’s Got the Right to Love’ from “Assassins” to Phelan’s ‘I Feel Pretty’ insecurity (from “West Side Story”). With monologues capturing the essence of what it is to be a gay man in modern Australia, it is a concept that works well without any change of original lyrics, resulting in many tender moments, including Phelan and Woodward’s sumptuous take on the ballad ‘Unworthy of Your Love’, also from “Assassins” and share of the melodious pain of ‘Send in the Clowns’ From “A Little Night Music” by Andrews in duet with Hirst.

In preparation for the pathos, there is a lot of early humour courtesy of witty dialogue and animated delivery, including an upbeat ‘Buddies Blues’ from “Follies” by Caroll and a naughty take of ‘I Know Things Now’ from “Into the Woods’ by Phelan. All the performers have an engaging stage presence, however, Phelan is a versatile standout as he shows off his ‘hot young thing’ dance moves in a gorgeous ‘Sooner or Later’ from “Dick Tracey”.

The secret joy of Sondheim’s music is the songs are often ones you don’t realise you know, which adds to joy of re-discovery of the show’s mix, including songs from “Company”, ‘The Little Things You Do Together’ and “Getting Married Today’, which features Hirst’s rapid fire lyrics juxtaposed with Phelan’s top falsetto, to wonderful comic effect. And thanks to the musical direction of Dominic Woodhead (also on piano), and Michael Thrum on sax and clarinet, and Kirsten Baade on bass, every number is musically on-point in its poignancy and intricate melody.

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Drawing from ten musicals, five performers, a three piece band and one composer, Director Kris Stewart has created a sensational work of celebration, with a twist. Not only does it take audiences on a journey though Sondheim’s songs, but, “Boys of Sondheim” presents a honest and heartfelt exploration of males trying to find place in the world, perfect for inclusion in Brisbane Powerhouse’s Melt Festival celebration of queer arts and culture.

More Moore Minogue

On A Night Like This – The Erin Minogue Story (Charming Rebel)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

January 27 – 28

This is it…. the moment for which the other, other Minogue sister Erin has been waiting – a call from Dani’s assistant and request that she join her famous siblings on tour, far away from Frankston, where she runs the Erin Minogue fame school for ages 3 – 8 (#nevertooyoung). And boy is she excited as she shares her story with the Brisbane Powerhouse crowd.

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As the fictional Erin, Lizzie Moore is every bit the bubbly optimist. Rather than resenting Kylie and Dani for their successes or obsessing over her own missed YTT audition, she is proud in boast of their achievements, defending Dani’s as astute business woman because she does have her own Target line after all.

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Although the show is filled with much humour, often at Dani’s expense (‘her’ hilarious tweets shared on screen are but one example), it is the music that is most memorable, particularly the manner in which songs are remixed to make them Moore’s own. And later songs in particular offer a wonderful opportunity for her to showcase her powerful vocals, with ‘On a Night Like This’ and ‘Better the Devil You Know’ resonating through the Visy Theatre space. In ballad too, Moore makes her vocal mark with a heartfelt ‘I Believe in You’, in departure from the song’s original Eurodisco sound.

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The biopic cabaret features more than just a Minogue setlist. Accompanist D’arren (Brad Rush) delivers a punchy ‘Suicide Blonde’ introduction to chronicle of Kylie’s Michael Hutchence inspired metamorphism from singing budgie to pop temptress and joins with Erin for some Stock Aitken Waterman sentimentality care of ‘Especially for You’, complete with cheesy action accompaniment. Jason Donovan features too, in music and narrative, providing an appealing nostalgia for those audience members of a certain vintage. (Why hasn’t any done a Kylie and Jason themed cabaret? #justsaying)

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Like Kylie and Jason’s teen romance, “On a Night Like This” is a show full of froth and bubble(gum pop) (#inagoodway). The show remains largely unchanged from its earlier outing, at the expense of opportunities to update some of its non-Minogue references (lip-sync fail mentions of Brittney Spears for example), but all the good stuff remains.

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With audience ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ sing-along and jump up, jump back hip swing share in debut single dance, it’s a perfect inclusion for the end-of-summer celebration of queer arts and culture that is Melt. Full of bubble and bounce it’s a peppy, pop, comedy cabaret insight into a non-existent celebrity sibling and her entirely untrue story, that is guaranteed to make you happy when you’re feeling blue, if you give it a chance now.

Photos c/o – Joel Devereux

Parisian ponderings

Appalling Behaviour (Wax Lyrical Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

February 10 – 13

An unnamed homeless man (Tom Markiewicz) appears from amongst a makeshift rubble of rubbish. Wearing a strappy back dress and with a face smeared with red lipstick, he is unapologetically flawed, appearing as quite the tragic sight. It is an introductory image entirely befitting the story of life on the edges of society, which he will chronical over the following 55 minutes.

Wax Lyrical Production’s new adaptation of Stephen House’s “Appalling Behaviour”, told as complex monologue, is dark, gritty and enticing as the show’s anti-hero shares of how declining mental health and various addictions lead him on a downward spiral of powerlessness and vulnerability.  Things start slowly and initially it is difficult to give over to complete captivation of his story, but the honestly of his delivery and appeal of the dialogue’s eloquence, combined with some latter comic moments, court the audience’s attention. And despite its often uncomfortable themes, this night with a homeless queen in the sleazy Parisian underworld also contains some lovely messages about humanity and the need for compassion as the sadness from within this beautiful city is shared.

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Staging is appropriately simple, both in consideration of the intimacy of the Powerhouse’s Turbine Studio and for the solitary nature of its story. Lighting effectively takes audiences through transitions from the shadows of sorrow to the strobe of a Parisian nightclub. And the addition of touching live music from Silvan Rus adds a valuable layer to a work which is ultimately both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Its realism (the work was based on the playwright’s own experiences of living on the streets of Paris) also adds to the appeal of the man’s stories of a woeful world on the streets alongside his hustler ‘friend’ Romano and the troubled Caroline, his perceived ‘Princess of Paris’. Markiewicz is a dynamic presence from the moment he begins the story, embracing the formidable task of an almost-hour-long monologue of precise, image-evoking language and concentrated emotional extremes. Not only does his performance promote the identifiable human values of humanity and goodness within the character, but it gives audiences much to ponder about the experience of those on the fringes of society beyond the banks of the Seine.

A little liaison with debauchery

Dangerous Liaisons (Little Ones Theatre)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

February 3 – 5

Little Ones Theatre’s adaptation of “Dangerous Liaisons”, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th-century satirical story of manipulation and sexual exploits, is an ambitious undertaking…. fully realised in opulent, over-the-top glory as part of Melt: A Celebration of Queer Arts and Culture at the Brisbane Powerhouse.

Published just years before the French Revolution, Laclos’s episodic novel of moral and emotional depravity is a disturbing and ultimately damning portrayal of a decadent society, known more popularly though its 1988 film. Scorned for the first time by a lover, aristocrat Marquise de Merteuil (Alex Aldrich) enlists former-lover Vicomte de Valmont (Janine Watson) to seduce the dumper’s virgin bride-to-be, Cecile (Amanda McGregor), daughter of Merteuil’s friend, Madame de Volanges (Zoe Boesen).  Ever the lothario, Valmont is more focussed on an attempted conquest of the virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Brigid Gallacher), a woman famous for strict morals, religious fervor and the happiness of her marriage. The sophisticated game of seduction and manipulation that ensures serves to bring amusement to the pair’s jaded existences and mercilessly destroys the lives of those around them, all for their own gratification.

Reflecting their indulgent, luxurious world, staging is opulent to the extreme – a simple yet striking sea of glisten, draped by glittering gold curtains and with an embossed gold stage, bare apart from three pieces of gold Baroque furniture. The French court costumes are also impressively garish in their head-to-toe, often sheer and revealing, pinkness in its every shade.

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The almost exclusively female cast, look and sound the part, with their heaving bosoms, whitened faces, rosy cheeks and rounded British vowels. It’s kind of like a French “The Importance of Being Earnest” with an aunt in the country and plenty of puns, filled in this case with sexual innuendo. And like W!ld Rice’s Earnest all-male ensemble take on that literary classic, this “Dangerous Liaisons” provides a new take on the text. If anything, the gender-bending role-play only highlights the language of script, offering a dominant feminist discourse in its presentation of passages about the roles of women in life and marriage.

As with their hilarious “Psycho Beach Party”, a highlight of 2013’s Brisbane Festival, Little Ones Theatre have extracted every possibility for camp exaggeration from the work. Double entendres abound and virtually every line is laden with sexual innuendo. With nod to the populist Moliere farcical comic performance style of the era, movement is stylised with deliberate mechanicalism and the animation of dialogue delivery is timed to exaggerated perfection with an almost pantomime-like comic effect.

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Although all cast members are creditable in their performances, the interplay between the two leads is most notable. Aldrich plays up the role of Merteuil to perfection, saying so much through even the smallest of traits, including some extravagant bitch-faces to rival even Alexis Carrington of “Dynasty” fame. And Watson is every bit the swaggering, seductive and unprincipled Valmont. The eroticised gender-bending, chosen in reflection of the traditions of the French Clandestine Theatre movement, is barely an issue, apart from how out-of-place it makes Tom Dent, the play’s only male cast member, seem as Cecile’s courtier Danceny.

With the addition of a glorious booming soundtrack of songs entirely at odds with its pre-revolutionary French setting (think Chaka Khan and Chris Isaac, for example), Act One, in particular, is a glorious ride. In its more talky Act Two, there are less laughs as masks of white are whipped off and characters become more tortured. In each instance, familiarity with the story’s previous incantations in not a prerequisite to appreciation.

For a dynamic night of theatre, you can’t go past this high-camp take on the debaucherous tale of deception. Amoral as the story might be, the elements of this production are all of the up-most quality and I cannot wait to see what these purveyors of high camp bring to Brisbane next.

Streamers, songs and significant stories

Gaybies

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

February 3 – 6

Based on interviews conducted with the children of gay parents, the verbatim theatre work “Gaybies” draws on the experiences of a diverse group people, ranging in age from four to 40, with a cast of local performers and community members vibrantly adopting the personas of each.

The stage is set for a children’s birthday party, complete with cake, craft and a scattering of toys. From here, characters share their tales of teaspoons, pantyhose and dream catchers. The anecdotes are filled with humour, insight and some touching, collective ‘awww’ moments, making the show moving despite its essential lack of narrative.

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From early on, the central idea is clear… that all families are different, filled with their own problems, love and funny stories. This is particularly evidenced through the standout scenes from Rebecca McInstosh and Kurt Phelan as siblings sharing story of their lesbian mother Jac. Another highlight is a segment that sees some cast members assuming the personas of young children. Not only are their takes humorous, but, to see, for example, Margi Brown Ash as fairy-winged four-year-old wannabe princess riding a tricycle about the stage is simply adorable.

With so many stories and its large cast, it can, at times, be difficult to reconcile “Gaybies” many threads, however, Director Kris Stewart ensures that audience engagement rarely lags, thanks to the incorporation of music and songs from Lizzy Moore and Artistic Director of the Australian Voices, Gordon Hamilton. Barbara Lowing, easily engages the audience at every opportunity courtesy of her natural, responsive, sensitive dialogue delivery and attuned timing. And Brisbane Festival Artistic Director David Berthold is impressive both in initial mimicry of his gruff father and later as an uncooperative child.

Given the show’s context, emerging from debate about marriage rights of same sex couples, it is packed with political commentary, perhaps excessively so given the repetition of its endorsement of gay marriage. It is probably safe to say that preaching is to the converted who can come to the conclusion alone from the tender tone and varied but similarly-themed messages of the show’s real-life stories of children from same-sex parents, surrogate mums, donor dads, co-parents and guardians.

“Gaybies” is an important piece of theatre…. proudly personal, poignant and political. Helpmann Award-winning Dean Bryant’s work presents a funny, moving and accessible piece of theatre for young people as well as adults. (Although the evening show has a 12+ recommendation due to its course language, its 4pm matinee is specifically targeted at allowing families to attend a show during MELT).