Review by Krystal Holzer.

I most definitely identify as what theatre-circles like to refer to as a ‘RENT-head’. Having seen the production performed by amateur theatre companies countless times, as well as experiencing the most recent off-Broadway revival in New York, I seriously can’t get enough of this musical; its themes, its songs and its characters. UMMTA’s production of RENT (staged at the Open House Theatre at the University of Melbourne) presented a nice salute to the tireless efforts of the late Jonathan Larson, who penned the show’s lyrics, music and book in the early 90s, only to tragically pass away the day before RENT was first performed for the public. Larson’s legacy lives on within each company’s portrayal of his Tony-winning piece, a legacy that was not lost on UMMTA director, David Miles.

Based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera, La boheme, RENT follows the lives of a group of struggling artists and musicians living in New York’s Bohemian Alphabet City during the AIDS/HIV epidemic of the 90s. Its rock score highlights the anguish and tribulations these people endure over a year of their lives whilst examining contemporary and universal issues including sexuality, relationships, prejudice and addiction.

In his director’s notes, Miles makes mention of the universal nature of these themes and his commitment to ensuring awareness of such issues and the importance of positive social progression. Having performed in the show himself and noting the impact it has had on him since, his passion and understanding of Larson’s significant legacy to people of all persuasions were very evident during parts of the performance. However, for me, it was more an issue of consistency. There were several times that I watched on in awe and felt a real connection to the characters and their grievances, whilst many times I was definitely taken out of the world of these eight New Yorkers and instead felt like an audience member, watching actors on a stage and trying to work out what they were doing. For instance, one of the most gut-wrenching songs/scenes of the show is the portrayal of a life-support meeting, as an AIDS sufferer is questioning whether or not his life will retain meaning once he dies. I was ready to feel a sense of overwhelming emotion, but was let down due to poor staging. Instead I was met with the backs of the ensemble as well as lead cast and couldn’t see or hear what was going on. As the venue provides seating on both sides of the stage, as well as in front of it, I feel as though the space could have been used more effectively for the viewing pleasure of all audience members. In the example I just provided, unless you were sitting in a tunnel down the centre of the audience, I’m not sure you would have had much more luck that I did sitting in the front row. Many times throughout, pivotal moments were played to only one side, which was a certain shame as I felt as though it disrupted the sense of solidarity I wanted to feel with these characters. Make sure you get to the theatre early and line up to rush to get a good seat – seating is not allocated and may mean the difference between whether or not you get to see some quality cast performances.

I was also confused with some creative decisions that were made for this production that I have not experienced in any other portrayal of the show. *SPOILER ALERT* – Angel dies. Following his death, the character of Mimi (a former exotic dancer who falls in love with rocker, Roger despite her heavy drug addiction HIV) runs away and is found alone in a park, in the dark, freezing. She is brought back to Roger on her deathbed and is serenaded back to life.  This all happened in UMMTA’s performance however, at the very end of the show, the late Angel was placed above the rest of the cast on the raised set and was joined by Mimi and Angel’s lover, Collins. This suggested to the audience that both Mimi and Collins had also died as they were represented in solidarity with Angel.  Were we to assume that Mimi had actually passed away? That Collins had perhaps killed himself in response to his lover’s passing? If this was not the intended audience response, perhaps an alternative staging was required because it was all very confusing and for the most part, an unnecessary addition. In saying this however, I do not want to take away from Miles’ admirable directorial debut. RENT is a gargantuan first production to take on, not only for its themes, but also for its fans and I was very impressed with much of what he presented. I hope that he continues to don his director’s hat and instill the same passion into future projects that undoubtedly shone through in RENT. I urge you to also experience this first hand.

Worth mentioning is the quality of the sound throughout the entire show. I feel as though my perception of the performance as a whole would probably have been much different, if not for the massive distractions that the inconsistency of the sound caused for me and many of my fellow audience members. At some points it was barely tolerable. The microphones on some cast were extraordinarily loud and caused a lot of feedback that almost hurt to listen to. On the other hand, other cast could hardly be heard or had their microphones turned off for much of their song. Both of these extremes were very disappointing and a real shame as RENT is most definitely a show that relies heavily on audiences connecting with lyrics to ensure the progression of the narrative. In addition to this, the cast was so very talented and it was a shame that either being terribly loud or having gone unheard hindered their performances. It was evident by some cast members faces that this technical issue was beginning to become very frustrating and I definitely felt for them as I would have loved to have heard much more of what they were capable of. Only exacerbating this frustration was the band constantly missing cues or playing out of sync, which happened on several occasions. I really hope that this was just an opening weekend glitch and that appropriate measures have been put in place this week to ensure the sound quality in closing weekend is improved drastically.

I was very excited to find Giancarlo Salamanca was in charge of lighting for this show, having just seen his amazing work in OCPAC’s Seussical. Again, his design was awe-striking at times and captured RENT’s angst-fuelled essence. In saying this however, the lighting also proved somewhat distracting. It was as if lights were being plotted live – many times the lights were being moves around to find the cast on stage and cast seemed very unaware of lighting marks, resulting in them going unlit during pivotal moments of the show. Additionally, at some points, too many lights were being used and moved around – so much so that it was difficult to concentrate on what was going on. Once the lights were in place however, they added a whole new dimension to the set and the staging of the cast and proved very effective. Getting to this point, however, was very distracting. I look forward to seeing Salamanca’s lighting again.

Despite these technical issues and moments of obvious frustration, the cast as a whole provided an engaging and thought provoking performance for audiences to consider. While energy levels seems to fluctuate as the show went on, I felt overall, the cast, leads and ensemble alike, showed an intense commitment to the show’s themes.

Shout out to Douglas Costello whose portrayal of the brooding rocker, Roger, was captivating and on-point. Having seen Costello perform as Melchoir in Altona City Theatre’s production of Spring Awakening in July, I truly believe he was provided an opportunity to come into his own as Roger. His earthy, rock tones worked well to emphasise the character’s angst-driven depiction and created a convincing and relatable portrayal of what it’s like to believe yourself to be undeserving of happiness while all that you’ve grown to know falls around you. Unfortunately, Costello suffered considerably from microphone issues, which was definitely a sore point as, when it was actually working, his voice suited the score perfectly.

Anisha Senaratne’s portrayal of Roger’s love interest, Mimi, was raunchy, strong and entrancing. Her performance in both ‘Light my Candle’ and ‘Out Tonight’ were definite standouts. She, too, suffered a lot from microphone issues but the strength, projection and clarity of her seemingly effortless voice accommodated for this. I must admit – while each performer was very good in their own right, this partnership (as did most of the partnerships in this cast) seemed to fall short in terms of a convincing emotional connection.

The lack of connection was perhaps most noticeable between James Worsnop (Angel) and Jeremy Russo (Collins). By the time ‘I’ll Cover You (Reprise)’ rolls around, I want to be overcome with distraught due to the fact that the most perfect couple ever has now been ripped apart. I want to believe that Angel has made a true impact on Collins’ life. I also want to believe Collins was able to provide Angle with a sense of guidance and direction. I just didn’t feel that here. Worsnop was very energetic, enthusiastic and animated as Angel but I could help but think he portrayed the character with too much of a youthful influence, as opposed to a confident and headstrong individual who is in no way intimidated by the world. His performance in ‘Today 4 U’ was enjoyable. Russo’s Collins was a little too over the top for my liking. I think one of the best things about Angel and Collins as a couple is that the represent different extremes and contrast each other well. Russo’s Collins seemed to compete with Angel with regards to camp-ness and proved limiting. While I mentioned that I wasn’t really feeling the right emotions by the time ‘I’ll Cover You (Reprise)’ was performed, I must say that this was the highlight of Russo’s performance as Collins, mainly because he stripped the character down and wasn’t forcing the character to be something he’s not. I felt this was a much better representation of Collins and commend Russo for altering his approach to the character at this point in the show.

Rachel Tigel’s Maureen was portrayed with just the right combination of confidence and sass. Her take on ‘Over the Moon’ had audiences in stitches and while I have seen this song performed into so many different ways before, I did appreciate her creative choices. I especially enjoyed her performance in ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ (this is a major deal for me because, probably to the dismay of other RENT-heads, it’s one of my least favourite songs of the show – kudos Rachel!). Syd Zeiger (Joanne) did well to match Tigel in ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ but I couldn’t help but feel as though her portrayal of Joanne could have come across as more confident, secure and self-assured.

Elliot Parker portrayed Benny well and was very consistent in his performance from his first appearance on stage and throughout the show. His interactions with other members of the cast were very good and his presence on stage was noteworthy. I kind of wish that Taylor Rettke as Mark had have had this same stage presence. Mark is both the show’s narrator and the puzzle piece that connects all of the characters together. The audience is supposed to feel as though they are being provided a rare insight into his life and the lives of those he cares most about. For me, I felt as though the power of Mark as a character was somewhat lost and at one point, had even forgotten that Mark was a part of the show. This has a lot to do with the staging and placement of the character rather than Rettke’s performance. However, I do believe that in future performances, Rettke could perhaps consider attacking the role with a little more conviction. I was very impressed with the clarity and strength of Rettke’s singing voice and was shocked to find that he is relatively new to the theatre scene. I look forward to watching him grow as a performer in future productions.

The ensemble was the highlight of the show for me. So many of the performers conveyed an intense sense of commitment, passion and understanding of the weight of the show’s themes. I was particularly impressed with ensemble member, Tess Walsh whose acting, especially her facial expressions, were hard to break away from. It’s a shame that I had to make the effort to find out who she was as she was left out of the program available to the public. I felt it was only right to acknowledge her supreme talent here as she was definitely a standout performer and I look forward to seeing her in future productions. Further commendations go to Pasquale Bartalotta, Tom Kitt-Thompson and Dennis Wang who, in their various ensemble roles, provided memorable and impressive performances. Whilst I’ve mentioned a select few, the entire ensemble should be proud of the efforts as they most definitely enhanced this theatergoing experience for me.

Despite a few hiccups, I did enjoy UMMTA’s RENT and do rate it well in comparison to other performances of the show I have experienced. Whether you’re a RENT-head like me or, even more so, if you have yet to had had a RENT experience, I urge you to make your way down to The University of Melbourne and support this hardworking cast and a creditable directorial debut.