Boho Boom!

Tick, Tick… Boom! (That Production Company)

Crete Street Theatre

March 12 – 14

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Like Bobby in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company”, struggling artist Jon (Jackson McGovern) is grappling with a 30s birthday. As many do, he considers this as a turning point in life, as he sees those around him all appearing to be settling down. Especially, he is filled with pre-mid-life-crisis self-doubt around his decision to be a composer, given how his musical theatre career has stalled. Exploration of this is what makes up the 90 minutes of “Tick, Tick … Boom!”, the musical by “Rent” composer Jonathan Larson, an autobiographical work that Larson performed on-and-off as a solo show prior to the debut of his magnum opus musical.

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In 2001, five years after Larson’s death, a revised, three-character version of “Tick, Tick … Boom!”, premiered off-Broadway. Even expanded to a three-person show, this remains an intimate piece of theatre. More reflective rock monologue than musical, it traverses a range of somewhat obscure song inspirations, with numbers like ‘Green Dress’ and ‘Sugar’. The songs are written by Jon as part of this story about ambitiously writing a show, the dystopian musical Superbia. And while he is waiting on tables and trying to write the “Hair” of the ‘90s, those around him are equally at odds with their lives; his girlfriend Susan (Stephanie Long) wants to get married and move out of New York City, and his best friend Michael (Josh Whitten) is making big bucks on Madison Avenue.

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Whitten is delightful as Jon’s fabulous friend Michael who relishes the lavish Gucci lifestyle he enjoys living in Victory Towers in contrast to that of his composer friend-since-summer-camp-days. And he contributes immensely to the humour of two particularly memorable scenes, when Jon takes up Michael’s offer to work at his advertising agency and during the dance break of ‘No More’. Similarly, Long jumps in and out of numerous roles with ease and showcases incredible vocals in the musical-within-a-musical’s show stopping number, ‘Come to Your Senses’. And McGovern is excellent in the demanding role as the passionate protagonist Jon, one that sees him on stage for the show’s duration. His energetic almost frenetic performance projects an authentic sense of time running out, that sits well with the show’s themes.

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It is unfortunate that “Tick, Tick … Boom!” is performed so infrequently. The style that eventually blossomed into “Rent” is certainly evident. ‘No More’, for example, has a real ‘Rent’ fast-paced rock sound. A range of emotions is covered in its soundtrack of diverse styles (Larson took much pride in being able to write music in a wide variety of genres) and subjects, with witty lyrics like those of Jon’s idol, Stephen Sondheim. ‘Sunday’, for example, is about the boorish patrons of the diner in which Jon works, while ‘No More,’ is a humorous ode to materialism.

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‘30/90’ is a catchy opening rock number in its build to an explosive chorus, immediately showcasing the small, but talented band (under Luke Volker’s musical direction) hidden from view high above the stage. And Daniel Anderson’s lighting evokes an array of emotional palettes and settings in complement of Lachlan Van Der Kreek’s vision design, capturing the beauty that lies at the core of this thoughtful work.

Its themes are familiar to those in the ‘La Boheme’ no-day-like-today know, as Jon laments the difficulty of being idealist and original in the unimaginative early 1990s (as a solo show it was initially known by the title “Boho Days”). Indeed, when Jon explains how he believes that his brand of rock music could change Broadway, one cannot help but think of their prophecy in relation to Larson’s revolutionary rock opera “Rent”, one of the industry’s most influential works from even its hugely successful off-Broadway run.

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While “Tick, Tick … Boom!” has no musical numbers as memorable as those of the latter “Rent”, it does include hint enough to tantalise the taste-buds of Rent-heads and newbies alike. It is an entertaining boho-ish show, experience of which flies by in what appears to be the shortest of times, thanks to Timothy Wynn’s tight direction. Whilst it is a must-see show for all the lovers of “Rent”, That Production Company’s “Tick, Tick … Boom!” is also a compelling show for musical theatre fans in general, superbly realised, as always, by a company that never disappoints.

Deck the stalls

79939213_10158199950018866_7036287020859129856_n.jpgThe festive season always means a theatre pause and reflection as to the year’s greatest applause. A Broadway break enabled experience of my new favourite thing in Dear Evan Hansen, which is now up there with Rent as my musical mecca, along with other 2019 faves Hamilton and Mean Girls. Closer to home, however, amongst the usual 100+ shows seen, there are a number of memorable mentions.

Most Entertaining

  • The Gospel According to Paul in which Jonathan Biggins brilliantly portrays the love-him-or-hate-him Paul Keating.
  • 100 Years of the History of Dance (as Told by One Man in 60 Minutes with an Energetic Group Finale), another solo show, this time from Australian director, choreographer and performer Joseph Simons.

Best musical:

  • Sweet Charity – the perfect start of year show from Understudy Productions, the little Brisbane theatre company that has very quickly become a very big deal.
  • the ridiculously funny Young Frankenstein, Phoenix Ensemble’s stage version of Mel Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof and parody of both the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.
  • The Book of Mormon– the ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical is still the funniest thing around, even in repeat experience.

Best musical performance:

  • Naomi Price as the titular Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, a role that appears as if written for her.

Best dance

Best cabaret

Best independent theatre

  • Ghosts – The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial play was innovative in its layers of scathing social commentary.

Best comic performance

Best dramatic performance:

  • Patrick Shearer for his powerful and precise performance as the bohemian artist son Oswald in Ghosts.

Most moving

  • Love Letters – the heart-warming story of two people who share a lifetime of experiences through the medium of handwritten letters, presented at Brisbane Arts Theatre by real-life married couple Ray and Melissa Swenson.

Best AV

  • Project Design Justin Harrison’s dynamic projection designs represented a key component of Kill Climate Deniers’ vibrant realisation.

Best new work

  • The relatable guilty pleasure of FANGIRLS – like a witty young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with important messages.

Favourite festival show

Notable mention to:

  • Rocket Boy Ensemble’s Reagan Kelly for its killer opening monologue chronicle of night out in the valley
  • Melbourne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for its incredible stagecraft of illusions and magic beyond just that of the expelliarmus sort.

Rent rejoice

Rent (Matt Ward Entertainment)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

May 2 – 20

You might not be able to buy love, but you can Rent it. I discovered this 22 years ago when I saw Jonathan Larson’s iconic rock musical “Rent” on Broadway, the year it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and received four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. As a self-confessed Renthead, I not only know the soundtrack by sing-a-long heart, but have now been fortunate enough to see over half a dozen different productions. And compatibility speaking, Matt Ward Entertainment’s 2018 realisation, is right up there with the best, which is particularly impressive given the theatre company’s emerging status.

The high energy take on the modern bohemian classic packs a musical punch. In fact, it is always about the music, which barely breaks during the show’s duration. The entire musical is brilliantly performed by a live band that is showcased from within the scaffolding that helps set the scene of Bohemian life in the East Village’s Alphabet City. With a song range that includes soul, techno, Latin and gospel, there is an eclectic mix of styles, yet the soundtrack sounds smooth and succeeds in evoking a range of emotions. When the entire cast communes on stage for the slower, signature Act Two opener, ‘Seasons of Love’ to ask what the proper way is to quantify the value of a year in human life, for example, one cannot help but both rejoice in their harmony but also reflect on Larson’s passing following the show’s off-Broadway final dress rehearsal.

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Appropriately, the show begins musically too, with lone musician Roger (Luigi Lucente) sitting atop a table, playing his electric guitar. Even without conventional theatrical elements, the audience is immediately absorbed in the show’s whirlwind of raw emotion. It is not just Roger’s story, but one of a tight-knit group of complex characters, impoverished young artists living in New York City’s East Village in the late ‘80s, based on Puccini’s beloved opera “La Bohème”. From one Christmas to the next we follow their dreams, losses and loves as they struggle through life under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.

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Roger is a grieving HIV-positive rocker. His roommate Mark (Tom Oliver) is a passionate filmmaker dedicated to intimately capturing the pivotal life moments of his closest friends. Together they live in a rundown, unattended warehouse loft owned by their former roommate Benny (Isaac Lindley), whose marriage into money has seen his become not only a budding entrepreneur but their rent collector. Their anarchist College instructor and computer genius friend Collins (James Shaw) is embarking on a new romance with Angel (Trent Owers), a big-hearted drag queen and street drummer who, like Collins, has AIDS.

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Roger fears falling in love with Mimi (Stephie Da Silva), a spirited exotic dance and drug addict, while Mark still has feelings for his kooky centre-of-attention artist ex Maureen (Ruby Clark) who stages a performance piece, ‘Over The Moon’, to protest Benny’s plans to evict the homeless camp in the empty lot next to the loft. Unfortunately for Mark though, Maureen has left him for Joanne (Kirrah Amosa), a crusading lawyer from a rich family.

Despite the multiple, intersecting storylines, all members of the key cast are given moments to shine and shine they do. Indeed, there are no weak links amongst the entire ensemble cast. Tom Oliver is an endearing Mark in a Johnny Galecki type way. Lucente is an ultimately-passionate Roger and his ‘One Song Glory’ solo rock ballad sing about his dying wish to leave his mark on the world is a sensitive and expressive early show highlight. While Owers is a little breathy in his physically-demanding solo ‘Today 4 U’, his gentleness projects Angel as the sweet soul of the show. And Shaw makes Collins’ Act Two ‘I’ll Cover You’ reprise an absolutely heartfelt reminiscence, at-once emotional and commanding. There is phenomenal vocal prowess amongst the ladies too. Da Silva makes easy work of Mimi’s high-energy attempt to seduce Roger alone in his apartment, ‘Out Tonight’ and ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ is a powerful duet between Amosa and Clark during a dramatic breakup between the controlling Joanne and flirty Maureen.

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It is the ensemble numbers, however, that ultimately shine brightest. The optimistic ‘Another Day’, is stirring in its rallying cry to embrace love and live in the moment according to the slogan ‘Forget regret — or life is yours to miss’. There is visual interest in every ensemble number too, with performers fully absorbed in their characters. Owers, for example, is especially nuanced in every glance and movement as Angel, even when as background to centre-stage action.

This is an exciting and passionate production of a ground-breaking work that shows why its rock soundtrack has been a pinnacle of musical theatre history for over two decades. While aspects of its storyline may have dated, many of its themes of homelessness, poverty and substance abuse are still sadly relevant. More importantly still, is its beautiful, overriding message of love enduring beyond all else, which, as this production shows, still stands as central to the narrative for both old and emerging Rentheads to rejoice.

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.

Bohemian Brilliance

Rent (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Crete Street Theatre

February 26 – March 12

Jonathan Larson’s ‘90s musical “Rent” is a modern classic of the type that has people returning to see its original Broadway run more than once (or maybe that was just me). So to see its bohemian brilliance on show, as is the case with Beenleigh Theatre Group’s compelling take, is always a pleasure.

“Rent” is a glorious work, or rather rework of Puccini’s popular opera “La Boheme”, set in the Lower East Side of New York. Its celebratory portrayal of a group of poor artists and addicts living hungry and frozen under constant shadow of AIDS was ground-breaking in contrast to the then traditionally conservative nature of most musicals. But times have changed and although the work is still full of vitality and poignancy, its effect is far less hard-hitting. What remains, despite the tyranny of time, is the appeal of its musical score, full of refrains of its memorable numbers.

Accordingly, the lengthy show is full of musical highlights including lovers’ duet ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ between Maureen (Allison Nipperess) and Joanne (Morgan Garrity) and Joanne’s duet with Maureen’s former lover Mark (William Boyd), ‘Tango: Maureen’, featuring not just some powerhouse voices, but a showcase of the performers’ comic timing. The ultimate, however, is the fabulous ensemble delivery of ‘La Vie Boheme’ which is choreographed to perfection to provide a vibrant visual tableaux in support of the two-part celebration of bohemianism and its ideas, trends and symbols.

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Performers showcase varying vocal ability but are all energetic in performance. Boyd anchors the show as its pseudo-narrator, struggling documentary filmmaker Mark Cohen. Not wanting to sell out to the mainstream film industry her prefers to view the world through a lens than engage in it, conveying an everyman sense of awkwardness. As his roommate Roger, a struggling musician who is HIV positive, Travis Holmes is first-rate. His musical hope to write one meaningful song to leave behind, ‘One Song Glory’ is outstanding and, unfortunately, his duets with Emily Corkeron as his love interest Mimi, suffer because of his comparative excellence. Indeed, her voice, while capable, does not seem to have the sustained power required to belt out her attempt to go ‘Out Tonight’ and seduce Roger, meaning that the potentially show-stopping number falls flat amidst an array of Act One highlights.

As the sweet and generous young drag queen and street percussionist Angel Dumott Schunard, Alex Watson takes the audience on an emotional journey from joy to sorrow and although his ‘Today 4 U’ musical boast is breathy in its energy, the chemistry between him and Matthew Dunne as his love interest, computer genius, professor and vagabond anarchist Tom Collins, is endearing, particularly in their lovely number ‘I’ll Cover You’. As sassy performance artist Maureen Johnson, Allison Nipperess is not only of strong voice but expressive to delicious comic effect, particularly in delivery of the performance piece ‘Over the Moon’.

Set design serves the space well, using scaffolding and platforms to recreate the gritty look of New York City’s East Village in the thriving days of Bohemian Alphabet City, including transforming a section of the auditorium floor to become a New York subway. Especially considering the size of its ensemble cast of over two dozen performers, choreography is impressive in its seamlessness, particularly in its many ‘big’ numbers. Poignant parts are handled well too, allowing for the tragic ramifications of its narratives to be sensitively realised in Act Two.

Although somewhat sanitised, Beenleigh Theatre Group’s “Rent” is a wonderful example of ensemble theatre at its best, with all elements combining in performance as passionate as the story’s characters. The company should be congratulated on their bravery of musical choice and dynamic application to all aspects of the production.