Jonathan Larson’s modern, bohemian classic storms the Brisbane Powerhouse this February and is just as potent and alive 20 years on from its original Broadway stint that earned it a Pulitzer Prize, four Tony awards, six Drama Desk awards and a secure spot in the Musical Theatre Canon. Now inspiring a new generation of artists, Director Tim Hill and Producer Matt Ward bring a fresh reincarnation to a 2017 audience.
As I stare up at my prized Rent poster, predominantly displayed, (I’m a diehard fan,) I think about my worn out OBC recording and what this show meant to me. I remember being inspired by Larson’s tale of a year in the life of struggling artists. I remember the characters and the gritty relationships explored, the heartbreaks treated with equal care, regardless of sexual orientation, set on a backdrop of New York’s East Village in the shadow of the HIV/AIDS crisis. I remember the real story of Larson’s passing away following the final dress rehearsal and thinking about the legacy he left behind within his work, what an extraordinary weight that must be on any production team taking on and last night’s performance did it justice.
Descending into the depths of the Powerhouse, we happened upon a darkened auditorium with a lone musician, strung out on a tabletop, playing his electric guitar. This table was to transform into the stage of the ‘Cat Scratch Club’, an exterior door to an apartment building and a market stall in the streets of New York City. The minimal and raw design by Anthony Spinaze perfectly complimented the intimate space and allowed for the piece to breathe, exposing every facet. It also allowed for Musical Director Andrew Wadley’s sound to rightfully dominate the space.
The production boasts a fascinating ensemble, beginning with Heidi Enchelmaier, Hannah Grondin, Isaac Lindley and Jacob Langmack all in supporting roles. Lindley and Grondin also both earning rapturous applause mid-song after their respective solo lines in ‘Seasons of Love.’ They created New York City and the portrayed the various character cameos scattered throughout the script. ‘Will I’ and ‘Life Support’ proved to be stand out points of the show. The use of breaking the fourth wall and moving through the aisles was perfectly executed at times, truly capitalising on the intimacy of the space; however, within some moments it was intimidating and divided focus.
Simon Chamberlain had a great character arc as Benny whilst our Joanne (Aurelie Roque) was perfectly balanced against the unpredictable Maureen (brought to life by Ruby Clark – Udders and all!) Clark and Roque truly complimented each other’s performances onstage, particularly in ‘Take me or Leave Me’ which came with a surge of energy.
Tom Davis brought a new energy to Angel. Subtle and delicate with perfectly timed moments of humour. She was the light in this story and a great loss was shared with Collins’ (Luke Hodgson) specifically in the reprise of “I’ll Cover You.”)
Jackson McGovern’s ‘Mark’ was a point of interest. It took me a while to warm to his interpretation but once I gave over to his charm, I was completely smitten. Whilst he had moments where he relished in the comedy of the piece and really came into his own (one of the many delights of his performance was his ‘Tango Maureen’ with Roque), inconsistency in whether his narration was delivered directly to the audience or to the camera or to himself as a sort of soliloquy left me unsure as to how involved I was in the story as an audience member.
Mimi and Roger, portrayed by Jacqui Mclaren and Chris White respectively, were, for me; the electricity powering the performance. Mclaren has completely recreated Mimi and reduced the audience to silence last night as the air froze during her closing monologue. Along with her daring choices in ‘Out Tonight’, ‘Goodbye Love’ and ‘Light My Candle’, the blazing highlight of the show was her chilling rendition of ‘Without You’. Without giving away anything: I sat in shock, my body numb and I think I forgot to breathe throughout the entirety of the number. Thrilling, harrowing, menacing, time stopped and I would like to take a moment to thank Mclaren and Director Tim Hill for this. White’s ‘One Song Glory’ really anchored the show, along with the rest of White’s performance, providing the perfect modern Romeo to Mclaren’s intoxicating Juliet. Together they were raw, honest and dangerous.
One of the only blemishes of an otherwise irreproachable evening were the technical aspects of this production. The sound and lighting operation seemed out of sync with the standard of the design, sometimes leaving actors in the dark (literally) along with audience (figuratively) as audio cut in and out causing us to miss parts of songs. We were left discounting moments of the action that otherwise would have been poignant, however; these are minor issues and I look forward to their warming throughout the run. Kudos to the cast for not battering a single eyelid.
The Brisbane Powerhouse provides a perfect home for this exposed and broken world, leading as one of the custodians of the Brisbane performance scene.
There are 525,600 minutes in a year, I implore you to invest 180 of them inside the lives of these bruised and resplendent characters. No day but today.
Written by Andrew Cockroft-Penman
To book tickets head to brisbanepowerhouse.org