RENT is a revered work. Only a month ago when Lin -Manuel Miranda’s HAMILTON: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL Cast Recording passed RENT’s sales, Miranda paid homage by telling Twitter “Okay I’ll take some questions but only answer in Rent quotes? Go!” Thousands responded.
I revere it too. It’s on my playlist with a small tear still available for some songs. And I see it as often as I can: it is a popular choice for amateur, pro and semi-pro companies. But it is twenty years old now. Time for a reassessment and, for me, in 2017, RENT cries out for a young cast. The right young cast.
It needs an excess of energy, it needs a modern emphasis on relationships rather than suffering, it needs the emotional gut punch of youth threatened and potential lost.
It needs Macquarie Musical Society.
Jonathan Larson was a week from his 36th birthday when he passed away. It was 1996 and the night when previews of RENT were about to start Off Broadway. He had been working on it for many years and it was a work of lived experience. Larson had lived in a loft with no heat, working for ten years in a diner for low pay at a time when the creative population of NYC was being decimated by AIDS. Ten days before his death he sold some books to get the money to buy a movie ticket.
RENT also has La Boheme as inspiration, Mimi is HIV positive rather than tuberculotic, Mark is Marcello with a camera instead of a canvas and the love-sick poet Rodolfo becomes the blocked song writer Roger. They are poor, disenfranchised and disregarded. And living in very poor circumstances.
That’s the first thing you notice when you enter the theatre. Director Jo Elisabeth Finnis has a clear vision and it hits you straight away. The wide playing area is evocatively deprived. With its wooden pallets, static flickering on the throwaway TV screens that dot the space and a tent city, it is a detailed, deceptively ramshackle statement of intent. Here there will be room to move for exciting choreography, dynamic ensemble work and an intelligent commitment to the restaging of a classic with a modern sensibility .
She has also has a cast with singing voices uniformly up to the task, who make exciting character choices and who work spectacularly well as an ensemble. This is thrillingly evident from the first big number, the title song… Rent.
Free flowing movement across the stage with well executed and planned choreo, a red wash with no-gel follow spots to pick out characters, flames on the screens, excellent use of the freeze and well blended choral voices raising the roof.
Re the music, I want to say this now and then move on: On opening night the band (Musical Director Paul Young) was too loud. It drowned out some of the voices, both company and solos, the guitar was amped up and drums overwhelmed in the echoey space. It needs to be under the voices of the artists. However, given the subtle and sensitive adjustments Young has made with the music to suit individuals and their range I am sure his musicians will be less intrusive as the season progresses.
Before this terrific title number revs up the crowd we have met two of our protagonists. Mark (Luke Murphy) is our guide to La Vie Boheme. Murphy is warm and perhaps a little nervous at first but by the time Mark is doing the ‘Tango: Maureen’ he gives us a Mark who is the consummate observer. His survivor guilt is focused and Murphy’s performance is driven by love and informed by his outsider status. His roommate Roger (Zach Selmes) is self-obsessed and riven. Selmes brings a charm and boyishness to the ex bad-boy rock star and his intro solo ‘One Song Glory’, sung in a simple white spot, foregrounds the despair which explains and endears despite his sulky and immature actions. Selmes’ acting is also terrific as he uses Roger’s coldness as a barometer for inner turmoil.
One thing to mention here is the recriminations duet between the two men near the end of the show. This is often a very upsetting song as the two friends come into conflict about survival. In this production it is gentled down to be a powerful and ultimately heart-warming scene. Selmes “poor baby” and Murphy’s sadness are such a modern take on male friendship. Yep … I had a tear.
Roger’s love interest is Mimi. A kittenish, wan and sensuous starmaking turn from Danielle Bainbridge. With a lovely voice especially rich in the upper registers, Bainbridge endows Mimi with the brittleness we need to see in this broken, doomed girl as she brings the perfect balance of fragility and bravado to this very important role.
Equally striking is Amy Neville who impresses from her entry. Confident and in charge, in great voice, her Joanne has depth and motivation to drive an abrasiveness without putting the audience off side. When her love interest, Maureen (Renae Goodman) eventually appears, what a firebrand! Sassy, ego driven and sexy as hell, she holds the audience in the palm of her hand. Goodman has absolute commitment to the very tricky performance piece and it works brilliantly… Mind you the choreo of her cow compatriots was wonderful fun!
The women make a gorgeous couple and have such an enjoyable rapport and progression in their relationship. It’s that analysis of associations that brings this production up to date. In fact, all the couples are perfectly cast but especially, Collins and Angel (Ali Kazwini and Shannan Marino). Marino is a dynamo who rocks a high heel and throws everything at the role to make Angel the beating heart of the production. Angel is sympathetic and excitable and Collins is quietly subversive and stolid. Their duet ‘I’ll Cover You’ is sweet and believable, honest and an audience favourite.
The principal cast is rounded out by Jasper Bruce as Benny who, early on, is an excellent corporate stooge. Bruce travels the arc well as his character is softened by falling for Mimi. The ensemble is equally good and seem to be able to turn their hand to anything. Their exhilarating and redolent work during ‘Contact’ is a case in point as emotions and actions collide.
The well created and interspersed TV images are such an adjunct to the emotional content of this show. Christmas lights, lightly falling snow, informal shots of the characters, a Pepsi ad. Even the eerie black and white static engages the emotions and enriches the action.
As does the effectively designed lighting rig which doesn’t rely on brassy, one note colour washes of the LED fixtures but discreetly uses the white analogues to guide audience focus and emotional engagement. I loved Mimi and Roger’s duet ‘I Should Tell You’ just before interval where her romanticised view was washed in aspirational purple and juxtaposed with a completely white state for his aggression. Finnis’ guiding directorial hand at work here to show each character at their most vulnerable. Excellent work from both audio and lighting operators by the way.
Another fine example of Director and cast coming together was ‘Without You’ where the audience’s attention was split across the wide stage with Mimi and Roger’s chilling and soulful rendition counterpointing the care Angel receives in the shadows. The end of this scene was beautifully imaged when loneliness and separation take up space on the right and love and intimacy narrow the vision on the left.
It is now historical fact that HIV/AIDs took generations of artists from us. Larson was living with HIV, though his death was a result of an aortic dissection, and he wrote this updated, non-traditional musical to pay respects to the lives lost. And this is respectful production. But a contemporary one. It doesn’t wallow in the past and the losses the virus inflicted, instead it has an eye to the personal, the relationships which get us through the tough times.
This was summed up for me by ‘Seasons of Love’ . As we re-entered after interval the anthem began in bare bulbed house lights. A long row of talented, committed performers standing across the stage united in the joy of creation and sharing.
Macquarie Musical Society congratulations on RENT! Highly recommended and playing at the Lighthouse Theatre on campus until 28th October.