Review: Rent (Highway Run Productions)

highwayrunVenue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Oct 8 – Nov 1, 2015
Book, Music and Lyrics: Jonathan Larson
Director: Shaun Rennie
Musical Director: Andrew Worboys
Cast: Laura Bunting, Denise Devlin, Casey Donovan, Linden Furnell, Josh Gardiner, Loren Hunter, Stephen Madsen, Nana Matapule, Jack O’Riley, Matthew Pearce, Chris Scalzo, Monique Sallé, Kirsty Sturgess, Chloe Wilson
Image by Kurt Sneddon

Theatre review
Stories about the impoverished artist are always romantic. The bohemian life is one that fires all our imaginations, but only a few of us are able to experience. In spite of all the debauchery and vulnerabilities associated with that way of life, we admire the purity that they represent with their uncompromising choices. The characters in Jonathan Larson’s Rent are passionate and idealistic, and like characters in Puccini’s La Boheme, their poverty is seen to be something of a rebellion against an establishment that is corrupt and ugly.

There are tragic repercussions in the narratives of Rent, and it is not until those occur in the second act that emotions begin to run high. All the musical numbers are beautifully realised under the direction of Shaun Rennie, but characters and their stories are somewhat distant, perhaps due to the age of the piece. Rennie, along with his designers (set by Lauren Peters, lights by Ross Graham and costumes by Georgia Hopkins) bring an accuracy to the look and feel of the USA in the mid-90’s, and Musical Director Andrew Worboys does an excellent job of updating its sound, but for a substantial duration, the piece plays like a concert with brilliant performances that engage, but only on a superficial level. We wait for poignancy to take hold, and although it eventually does, its effects seem too little, and too late.

The cast is comprised of 14 powerful voices that give the musical a superb polish. Some are stronger actors than others, but the quality of singing is consistently impressive and thoroughly enjoyable. Mimi is played by Loren Hunter, who shines bright in the role with her creation of a personality that is complex, colourful and clear. There is a precision to her work that delivers just the right amount of pathos, keeping us connected through her sense of authenticity. Along with her warm vocal tones, Hunter’s portrayal of conflict and suffering is an irresistibly captivating one. Also memorable is Casey Donovan, feisty and dramatic as Joanne, the Ivy League-educated lawyer. Donovan stuns us with her extraordinarily soulful singing, giving the musical genre a rare edge, and surprises us with a convincing characterisation of an intriguing personality. Christopher Scalzo is a controversial Angel. Originally written as a trans woman, Scalzo’s interpretation reads more like a cisgender gay male. Well-known trans characters of the theatre are extremely rare, so this obliteration is unfortunate, but it is a commendable decision that Scalzo is not required to assume a false trans identity for the stage, and is instead allowed to give expression to the role in a manner that is perhaps more in line with his personal gender identity. It is also noteworthy that Scalzo’s gutsy approach to his songs adds a raw dimension to a show that can be too clean in its presentation of the New York underground. His concluding scene is sensitively rendered, providing one of the key elements to the most moving portion of the production.

Rent was created at a time when AIDS was the leading cause of death in young Americans. Although there is much more still to be achieved in the space of HIV/AIDS research and medical advancement, we have come a long way since those early days of death and darkness. Discrimination however, still persists and the message in Jonathan Larson’s work remains relevant. Wealth distribution is still the cause of our troubles, and the urgency to address the problems in Africa is undiminished. The production’s upbeat end is to be expected, and although it seems futile in these times of complacency to bemoan the fact that the struggle is yet to be over, the truth in Larson’s work resonates, and it is always the underprivileged that is neglected and we simply have to do better.

www.hayestheatre.com.au | www.highwayrunproductions.com