2016 marks the 20th Anniversary of Rent’s Broadway debut. It seems only fitting that Beenleigh Theatre Group have chosen to stage the show this year, as it is reminiscent of the fact that the Broadway debut of Rent took place 100 years after the debut of Puccini’s La bohème, the opera on which the rock musical is based.

Mardi Schon as director has led her production team with clarity to create a faithful representation of Rent. In places, there could have been clearer relationships established between some of the characters (for example, Mark and Roger didn’t connect in a way that made it obvious they’d known each other for years), and there were moments of unclear blocking (at the top of the scene for ‘What You Own’, Mark repositioned the central table, but then proceed to move it another two or three times for no apparent reason). Schon has worked well with her choreographer, Nicola Stavar, to achieve the dark, down-trodden feel of the piece. Their collaboration for ‘Santa Fe’ in Act One was fabulous – Collins, Mark, and Angel in a freezing cold subway, dreaming of a warmer climate which was beautifully represented by a group of dancers in breezy summer clothes – what a great touch!

Set design by Brent Schon, Mardi Schon and Michael Baldwin was very on point for Rent, combining the usual scaffolding and platforms that we have come to associate with the show. The corrugated panelling in front of the orchestra was been painted to mask the band on stage. However, there is a panel in front of the second piano player that has a partially see-through section, meaning that when Roger was singing ‘One Song Glory’, a pair of conducting arms inadvertently upstaged him. The set team made great use of the Crete Street Theatre’s design by having the floor section of the auditorium serve as the New York subway – a very simple, but hugely effective choice.

Lighting design Keegan O’Neil and Joshua Braithwaite was a little bit hit and miss. While it is understood that Rent is grungy and dark, and that the lighting must serve this mood, it made no sense to have ‘One Song Glory’ lit and directed in such a way that Roger’s eyes were unable to be seen, so much of his expression was missed. There were also other times when cast members, principals and ensemble alike, were standing in unlit patches. The lighting for the joyous conclusion of Act One, “La Vie Boheme” was a great contrast to the rest of the act, as was the spiritual lighting effect upon Angel’s passing.

Christine Leah led the band capably, and their sound was tight. Once or twice, there was an issue with cueing and establishing clear tempi, but these resolved quickly. Leah’s hard work with the cast was evident in the balance of harmonies she elicited from the ensemble. With Rent being a rock musical, it was a little disconcerting to hear voices coming from the ensemble that would have been more at home in La bohème. This issue could be resolved by simply taking those female lines down an octave, and thereby lose the classical soprano quality that emerged on a couple of occasions.

Unfortunately, much of Leah’s hard work was lost to poor sound – body mics going up after soloists had begun singing; when a wash of sound should have occurred during ‘Will I’, individual voices stood out; a layer of harmony was missing during ‘La Vie Boheme B’. No doubt as the season continues, these sound issues will be ironed out.

Costume coordinator Marg Oliver has done a wonderful job in creating the wardrobe for the show. There were nods to the original Broadway costume design – Mark’s striped jumper – as well as pieces which gave a new look to these familiar characters. Angel’s drag costumes (sexy Santa and Pussy Galore) were fabulous.

Will Boyd as Mark, and Travis Holmes as Roger. Photo Credit - KD Photography

Will Boyd as Mark, and Travis Holmes as Roger.
Photo Credit – KD Photography

Will Boyd as Mark Cohen gave a great performance. His singing was nuanced, and strong (a great asset when his mic gave out during ‘What You Own), and he moved with ease from narrator to involved player. In ‘Tango Maureen’, Boyd was deliciously charming and his comic timing was spot on. Watching Boyd during Angel’s funeral was confronting – I found myself having to look away and look back, such was the genuine intensity of his emotion.

In the role of troubled musician Mark Davis, Travis Holmes was vocally strong, At times, his singing was reminiscent of David Hobson’s voice. While his classical training was evident, Holmes made the tone of his voice suit the show. Holmes needs to find more anger in the character in order to convey Roger’s troubled past. When we finally saw the much-needed anger spill over in Act Two’s ‘Halloween’, it was most satisfying to watch.

As Mimi, Emily Corkeron’s dancing was certainly the highlight of her role. Her moves in ‘Out Tonight’ were commanding and sexy, everything you need from Mimi as she dances on the balustrades. Her vocals were solid and showed great vulnerability in appropriate moments. Corkeron’s Mimi needs more fragility when she first appears in ‘Light my Candle’. She was far too ‘together’, and there were no signs that she was struggling with addiction – we needed to see the shivering which Roger mentions, and have the sense she’s on edge from probable withdrawal.

Matthew Dunne’s voice was perfectly suited to the role of Tom Collins.  His rendition of ‘I’ll Cover You (reprise)’ was heartbreakingly beautiful. Dunne had a great feel for Collins, and gave a very balanced performance. His rapport with his Angel (Alex Watson) was full of joy and great love, making Angel’s death that bit harder for us all to witness.

When Alex Watson first appeared as Angel Dumott Schunard, it was in a very understated manner. When he returned in full drag for ‘Today 4 U’, he burst onto the stage in a gorgeous mix of sass, joy, and Christmas cheer. His gestures during the telling of how the dog Evita died were sometimes not just double but triple entendre, giving rise to some great laughs from the audience. You could palpably feel Angel’s pain as he battled the last throes of the AIDS, for Watson gave us very raw emotion. He sang throughout with confidence and ease, regardless of which part of his range was required. Watson is definitely one to watch in years to come.

Morgan Garrity as Joanne, and Allison Nipperess as Maureen Photo Credit - KD Photography

Morgan Garrity as Joanne, and Allison Nipperess as Maureen
Photo Credit – KD Photography

In the show stealing performance of the evening, Allison Nipperess as Maureen Johnson was deliciously flirty, sassy as hell, and utterly magnetic. She delivered Maureen’s performance piece, ‘Over The Moon’ in a manner all her own. I must confess that I will never see Fosse jazz hands in the same way ever again! Top marks to the person responsible for creating the ‘look’ of Elsie the cow – be it actor, director or choreographer, it’s a wonderfully funny moment each time Nipperess assume this udderly (sic) hilarious pose. Nipperess’ vocals were always on point and in the face of some seriously demanding singing, she did not waiver once.

As Maureen’s on-again off-again girlfriend Joanne Jefferson, Morgan Garrity delivered a character who was equally as sassy as Maureen. Her performance of ‘We’re Okay’ left no question as to who she was talking to, and about what it, as she delivered it with great wit. While her vocals in ‘Take me or leave me’ were strong, there were moments of slight constriction. This may have simply have been opening night nerves.

As the antagonistic Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III, Joel Mikkelsen gave us a character who was in it for himself, with little regard for others. Benny’s character would benefit from showing a more proprietary attitude towards Mimi, so we can see him assert himself both professionally and personally. Milkkelsen showed great vocal assurity during his solo for ‘Seasons of Love’ – soulful and strong.

Performances from the supporting ensemble were full of energy, although a little varied in quality. Particular mention must go to Shelley Scott as Alexi Darling (suitably over the top and very humorous), and Peter Keavy as the Waiter/Squeegee Boy for his full engagement in everything he did to a level where he was a standout, but not an upstager.

Beenleigh Theatre Group has staged a production of Rent of which they can be justly proud. The combination of great set and costume, familiar characters who make us laugh and cry, and a rocking score make a trip to Beenleigh well worth it.