Walking up the stairs at the Athenaeum and finding yourself locking eyes with a Donald Trump painting is fairly unexpected. It drives home the relevance of this Jonathan Larson masterpiece. Whether it’s AIDS or inequality, the younger generation will always be battling against the odds they’ve been given.
This production of RENT is the 2017 Graduating Class of the Federation University Music Theatre degree. It’s an exciting production to see because you’re watching the beginnings of a legion of performance careers.
Adrienne Chisholm’s set is immediately immersive, with the performance utilising the full space. Props flying in and out allow for more floor space, and with such a large cast that’s critical. The actors even interact with some audience members, so be prepared to walk into Alphabet City when you go to this show. These characters are in their habitat, you’re just visiting.
Daniel Agar as Mark is commanding and endearing and carries the show with apparent ease. Jonathan Reeves as Roger shines with a sensitive and expressive performance of “One Song Glory”. These two have delightful chemistry throughout.
Jonathon Shilling’s Angel is mesmerising. Shilling has an experienced air about him and projects the gentleness of Angel incredibly. Billy Sloane brings Collins’ earnest persona to life with a beautifully round voice.
Laura Morrisby brings a particularly emotive side to Mimi, with a potent death scare scene and impressive vocal skills. Jolan Walker brings the right air of arrogance to his divisive Benny, allowing for a believable transformation into a softer man throughout the show.
Madeline Pratt’s provocative Maureen is the centre of attention and Pratt demands your eye as she makes the stage hers, allowing the intricacies of a kooky character to be charming. Elise Lewis rounds out the principle cast with her controlling yet loving Joanne, giving an expressive and strong performance.
‘Seasons of Love’ will always be the slower, touching moment of the show, and allowing the whole cast to be on stage made the sense of community shine through. ‘Tango Maureen’ brings a comic highlight with Agar and Lewis leading a tango dance number full of snappy twists and wit. ‘La Vie Boheme’ is wild and everything you’d expect from these underdogs. While some black-out transitions are clunky and could instead be used to explore these characters in their world, there’s usually always something to be inspired by or to look at.
The five-piece band bring Larson’s music to life brilliantly. Phillip Pietruschka’s sound mix is superb, letting the edgy rock vibes soar. Niklas Pajanti’s lighting adds a sublime layer of atmospheric dynamism, using string lights as well as the more typical stage lights. Cristina D’Agostino’s choreography emphasises the era incredibly well, giving plenty of opportunity for the cast to shine. Julia Spizzica’s costumes are crucial in communicating changes in scenes and characters, highlighting the importance of clothing on wealth and class.
There were a couple of mic drops and shaky follow spots but otherwise it’s a technically sound production. Occasionally the layout means actors have their backs to the audience and block visibility to the rest of the scene, but the naturalistic way of using the space calls for this. Having the full cast in this space at once can feel overwhelming at times, but it’s rare enough that it doesn’t dampen the overall impact.
This immersive, exciting and explicit production of RENT is a wonderful way to launch the careers of our upcoming theatre performers. It showcases authentic, complicated characters and lets these actors push themselves to new heights. This cast is full of interesting and unique performers, dedicating themselves fully to every aspect of this production.
A great touch of compassion is having donation buckets for the Victorian AIDS Council scattered throughout the area.
The Federation University 2017 Graduating Music Theatre Class’s production of RENT is on at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre until 6 May 2017.
Photo credit: Jodie Hutchinson