With every generation, comes a musical which talks directly to its audience and deals with current and often controversial subjects. HAIR in the late 60s was such a show and came to define an era.
In January 1996 after nearly a decade of working on a tale of Bohemians struggling to survive in modern-day New York, and based on Puccini's La Boheme, Jonathan Larson's RENT finally previewed. Larson died suddenly after the final dress rehearsal and never got to see to the show transfer to Broadway. Critics and audiences however, embraced his story of love and survival in a city filled with homeless people, fast approaching the next millennium, and living in the era of an AIDS epidemic (four of the principal characters are HIV-positive). Larson's untimely death, a Pulitzer Prize and numerous other major awards gave this show legendary status and keep it running for over 12 years.
Written as a rock opera for the MTV generation, Larson's story is filled with love and beauty, amidst the misery and death that surrounds it. This production seeks to capture the spirit of Larson's work and to focus on the motto No day but today. It succeeds in most aspects.
Director Paul Watson has a fine understanding of the work, having played Mark in a previous production. He has surrounded himself with a fine team of creatives who bring alive the work in many dynamic ways - the state-of-the-art lighting effects are largely sensational. His cast have mostly benefited from his experience with a number of exceptional performances.
Daniel Benge is a stand-out as Mark, the story's narrator and film-maker. His performance is strong and confident throughout. Phil Haby (as Collins) and Leigh Barker (as Angel) bring compassion and understanding to their characters.
Zuleika Khan (as Joanne) has a sensational singing voice and embraces her opportunities to shine. As Maureen, Kate Weston also gives a strong performance.
The central roles of Mimi and Roger are played here by Katie Wood (another great singing voice) and Steve Simmons. Both have moments together which work really well, then seem to struggle with the complexities of their characters.
Simmons doesn't always appear comfortable centre stage, in particular at the start of the show singing One Song Glory. With his body often turned away from the audience and hardly looking up, the song loses a lot of its impact.
Wood, also, does not always manage the nuances of the fragile Mimi. Looking healthy, attractive and with great hair, we have to try and believe that she is a drug addict and sick with HIV.
Mention should be made of the fine (and culturally diverse) ensemble and smaller roles. These are almost all performed extremely well. The challenging La Vie Boheme at the end of Act One, which features the company, is a highlight.
The design mostly works well, and the spectacular lighting effects have already been mentioned. There were a number of moments however, particularly in Act One, when the effects seemed to take over, and performers were not adequately lit within the effects, often singing/performing in low light.
On the whole though, the cast, creatives and musicians should all feel proud. This is a fine, first-class production which reaches out to a new audience and allows the legacy of Jonathan Larson to live on.
Whitehorse Musical Theatre presents
RENT – THE MUSICAL
Music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Paul Watson
Venue: Besen Centre 87-89 Station Street, Burwood
Dates: 7 to 17 October, 2010
Tickets: Adult $38, Concession/Group (15+) $34, Mad Monday ALL tickets $30