Music, Stage

Rent: modern classic gets fresh blood (Hayes Theatre, Sydney)

| |

There’s a strange irony to the fate of Jonathan Larson’s mid-90s rock opera Rent. The show, which follows a group of young artists living in New York’s East Village as AIDS is claiming young lives and testing the strength of communities, reacts strongly against the forces of capitalism and the appropriation of artistic expression by big business.
But in the years after Larson’s death (he died the night before the show’s Off Broadway premiere) Rent inevitably became a big business. It moved into a big Broadway theatre — which was Larson’s ambition — and went on to tour all around the world, raking in tens of millions.
In many ways, director Shaun Rennie’s new production for the 110-seat Hayes Theatre feels like a homecoming. Rent started its life in the 150-seat New York Theatre Workshop back in 1994, and the Hayes production conjures up the same kind of excitement those initial audiences must have felt.
Rennie and his cast of young actors have found the passion and anger which is the driving force of Larson’s work. Larson was seeing his community ravaged by a number of forces and Rent is an endlessly optimistic work with a hope that his self-made family could pull back together with love.
Rennie is a first time director and his instincts are usually right on the money. He has plenty of imagination and comes up with inventive staging solutions — the second act opener is a particularly lovely surprise, and I won’t give it away — along with choreographer Andy Dexterity, who uses sign language to dig into the emotional subtext of Larson’s lyrics.
It’s not a perfect production, by any stretch of the imagination. But Rent isn’t a perfect musical either.
The book is still slightly muddled despite the show’s long development period, with some important plot points dealt with just a sentence or two (usually sung, and therefore quite easily missed). There are also some rhymes and lines which you imagine would have been cut over the course of the show’s Off Broadway season, but obviously nobody was willing to tamper with the work too much after Larson’s death.
But it is a prodigious work with a surprising range of musical and dramatic styles, packed full of enduring rock and pop melodies — from the warmth of Seasons of Love to the raw sensuality of Out Tonight and the comedic mastery of Over The Moon (which in Rennie’s production is the perfect, embarrassingly sincere piece of protest art).
What comes through very strongly under Rennie’s directorial hand is that this is a musical all about growing up and the creeping conservatism that comes with age; about that moment when you realise you’ve been forced into adulthood and there’s probably no way to turn back. These are characters who understand that experience, whether that’s due to disease, poverty or the sometimes harsh realities of a life in the arts. La vie Boheme, the usually riotous celebration of a bohemian lifestyle is just that, but in 2015 you can see an unexpected fear in the eyes of each performer on stage — they are fighting to continue in that moment of rebellion and revolution as the world progresses into a more conservative state and that dream of freedom quickly slips away.
Andrew Worboys’ musical direction was a highlight of the Hayes Theatre’s first hit Sweet Charity, but it’s a problem in this production. The band is not tight enough (which is surprising, given both Worboys’ and the band members’ experience) and there are too many missed cues and moments where dynamics aren’t coherent between the cast and musicians. He has some good ideas — like his Madama Butterfly “humming chorus” take on Musetta’s Waltz — but there are also some jarring synthesised sounds coming from the band, including a bafflingly synthesised electric guitar solo.
It’s not helped by Jed Silver’s sound design, which is fine in solos or duets, but becomes a little muddy in the more intricate ensemble numbers. You can get away with a lot of scrappiness in Rent, but many of the musical elements in this production fall just the wrong side of “scrappy”.
Falling the right side of that line is set designer Lauren Peters, who has ingeniously turned the Hayes into a loft/warehouse-style space with exposed brick and raw timber floorboards. Somehow, the stage feels more expansive than it usually does, filled with the scraps of modern Bohemia, lit with a sensitive but grungy sensibility by Ross Graham.
But it’s the cast who really light up the stage — each and every performer has energy and charisma to burn. When it comes down to the nitty gritty of character, some shine brighter than others, with Stephen Madsen a clear stand-out as Mark, finding new truths in the minutiae of the lyrics and leading the audience through the story as the sort-of narrator. Loren Hunter has also developed an intriguing and dangerous Mimi, complete with physical and vocal ticks, and Christopher Scalzo has some fine moments of camp warmth as Angel. Matthew Pearce also elevates the role of Benny by playing it for truth — he has a real sense of the history between his outsider character and the others.
The vocal performances are uniformly strong, from Casey Donovan and Laura Bunting’s roaring performance of Take Me or Leave Me, which all but lifted the roof off the Hayes Theatre on opening night, to Linden Furnell’s gorgeous One Song Glory and Nana Matapule’s velvety rendition of I’ll Cover You.
To my mind, the sheer force of these performers is enough to get this production over the line. It resonates so loudly and deeply — as evinced by the passionate and instant opening night standing ovation and the word of mouth which has already seen this entire season sold out — that you can easily forgive its few missteps.

[box]Rent is at the Hayes Theatre, Sydney until November 1. Featured image by Kurt Sneddon[/box]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *