Generally, musicals could be seen as “entertainment”: yes, there are problems or conflicts to be worked through, and we may have to just deal the fact that people are bursting in to song randomly (in places where only Music Theatre kids are ever really likely to burst into song). Ultimately though, there’s a happy ending. We’ve viewed something which may occasionally remind us of our lives, but more often elevates us from the mundane and disappointing. “Art” on the other hand, especially contemporary works, can be deliberately provocative, messy, uncomfortable, obtuse, unsatisfying. Art imitates life, reflects on it, forces us to actually think. Jonathan Larson’s Rent could be thought of as “art” in the guise of a musical: at the same time as having spent some many years being refined and ultimately achieving critical acclaim, Rent has clear moments of provocation, reflection, dis-ease [sic] and mess. It reflects life, but this life (1840s Paris and 1980s New York) is probably not our life, or at least not completely. It’s not possible to fully relax with the spectre of AIDs, homelessness, addiction, poverty, and infidelity all constant refrains, despite how beautiful and enduring some of the musical refrains become. It’s hard to follow a narrative when the entire musical is sung-through, and voicemail messages take the form of dissonant recitative, although we also recognise the dissonance of ‘selling out’ to reduce our own struggles great and small. But life, art and entertainment would also be very boring without companies like GTC, taking on works like Rent.
Overall, there were numerous successes to the production. From the very start, the small and unseen rock ensemble were solid, coming through clearly and sounding well polished. There was likewise excellent ensemble balance and consistency throughout, with harmonies and different textures brought out cleanly. With both ensemble and leads, there was also frequent use of well-controlled dynamic contrast to build tension and emotion. Musical Director Benjamin Heels is to be congratulated on all fronts for shaping the skill of cast and band.
Lighting was designed particularly effectively to create additional locations or senses of physical or emotional ‘space’ in a venue with a limited stage area. Minimal sets and props also added some much needed variation to levels and focal points, and served to indicate different functions of the stage space. As is fairly typical with performances early in a run though, there were issues with synchronising lighting cues to performer movement or positioning, and additional glitches with sound.
Although costuming didn’t always seem to contribute to characterisation as far as leads were concerned, it was actually very heart-warming to see the ensemble tied together with consistent pops of colour and pattern in their costumes, matching their evenness as a vocal group. Often ensemble numbers involved the use of vocal and instrumental ostinati (riffs). These were brought out well when tied to simple, repetitive movements (the classic being ‘Squeegee Man’). The choreography in general warmed up as the show progressed, from initially being a little awkward in the small space, to having much more artistic vision and thoroughly enhancing the multiple narratives. Of particular note were the very controlled ‘Tango: Maureen’, and the dirty, anarchistic ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’-reminiscent ‘La Vie Boheme’ of Act I; various background montages worthy of a music video mid-way through Act II, and Angel’s anguished emergence from the Ground Zero of a Lady Gaga-esque cocoon-orgy in ‘Contact’. It would be interesting to see what Choreographer Lizzie Pereira and Assistant Choreographer Ashleigh Janky could do with more space.
But a musical is not much of a musical without singing, and it’s always a pleasure to experience both skill and good characterisation. Featured performers from the ensemble absolutely nailed both vocal and emotional highs at every turn; convincing us that they were not just “renting emotion”. The recitative utilised in this production did tend to be fairly tedious: this was honestly more a creative choice by Larson than a reflection on the cast and their capabilities though.
As for the leads, Mark (Lachie Trappett), Roger (Stewart Hawkey) and Benny (Luke Peverelle) displayed beautiful restraint and ease for much of their work, with solid rock vocals. Trappett was vocally and physically dependable: always observing the action, often including us in his thoughts, allowing us to see something of his inner struggle with ideals. Hawkey interestingly often blocked out the audience, starting the show facing away from us as he attempts for the umpteenth time to write his ‘One Song’; vocally depicting the struggle between knowing your future and not wanting to face it in a highly emotive manner. Likewise, Tristan Cullinan-Smayle as Collins, who bears the brunt of actually having to face some of that ‘future’ as a result of his relationship with Angel, delivered beautifully emotional renditions which recall aspects of numbers like ‘Bring Him Home’ from the also sung-through and revolutionary ‘Les Miserables’. Sean French lent a realism and optimistic fragility to Angel (the pallor and colour choices in makeup were nicely effective, and drag subtle and relatable), with vocal quality degenerating as the character does.
Laura Harris-Rilen demonstrated very controlled, even underplayed vocals to match the glassy-eyed, dream-like junkie side of Mimi. Her sexy, attention-grabbing side was powerfully shown with an agile belt to rival Christina Aguilera, and fantastically distracting stretches and vocal growls. Harris-Rilen had to work hard in various numbers to convey both emotion and musical content, and was a standout in this regard as well. Sos Gill as Maureen encapsulated a sense of what it would be like to be a performance artist in New York, portraying Maureen as self-centred, unpredictable, exciting and unreliable. Gill came across as cute and appropriately infuriating, with a belt which the sound gear struggled to handle effectively. Gill’s ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ with Cynthia Gallie as Joanne was believably realistic, partially due to Gill’s willingness to through herself into the role, but also because Gallie improved every scene in which she was present. As the conservative Joanne, Gallie seemed utterly calm and sure of her skilful performance, and quite rightly too. Gallie’s vocals were clear, her acting on point, and her ensemble work superb (not least in ‘Tango: Maureen’ as well).
Rent’s narrative structure of jumping between key celebration dates – Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, and appropriately for a death, Halloween – serves a something of a reminder that for many, friends present at those times can be more of a family than blood relatives. Director Hannah Bird speaks of GTC as being a family – one which is obviously made up of a diverse collection of people with a common love of theatre. Although the nature of Rent’s construction, in a theatre of this size, sometimes makes it hard to suspend disbelief and submerse fully in the production, GTC’s “family” made it a rewarding journey to take through their “season of love”.
REVIEW BY CALYSTA MORGAN