Rent | Everyman TheatreEveryman Theatre has opened a fine production of a modern classic at the Courtyard.

The story of a group of impoverished friends struggling to make their name in New York under the shadow of HIV/AIDS, Rent is among the longest-running Broadway musicals, having been performed at the Nederlander Theatre from 1996 to 2008. Its historical significance (both social and theatrical) is great, and it is starting to show its age, with a few obscure lines now highlighting the changes that have come about in western society’s responses to HIV/AIDS and homosexuality in the last decade. It remains, however, a very poignant story, highly developed in character and plot; qualities that are extremely rare in musical theatre.

It can’t be denied that Rent is a big show. Nothing about it is intimate; its themes are as lofty as its music is histrionic. And its characters, while well-developed, are nonetheless representatives of archetypes more than they are individual personae. So to squeeze this vast musical into the Courtyard at the Canberra Theatre Centre is a curious choice. Perhaps it is the bite of Canberra’s very limited theatre space, but whatever the reason, it hasn’t paid off. Both music and characterisation suffer from being cramped into this intimate space.

The Courtyard doesn’t lend itself to amplification and the book doesn’t lend itself to unamplified projection. Musical Director Nick Griffin made what was probably the only possible call and opted to amplify both band and performers, but in this space with its low ceiling and extremely live acoustics, the system was peaking throughout, with the band’s excellent work distorted and vocals too often incomprehensible. If I didn’t already know the plot, I may have missed it.

The cramped space also hindered the performers’ connection with the audience, as they were practically forced into the auditorium at times, or relegated to an awkward corner of the stage at others. This problem was possibly compounded by having the director – Jarrad West – also perform a major role (Tom Collins), which must have limited his capacity to identify and rectify blocking difficulties. The major culprit, however, was certainly the space itself. The Courtyard, though it might evoke an apt warehouse-feel, just cramps Rent’s style, which was most evident in Seasons of Love, possibly the musical’s most identifiable number. Despite great vocals, the rigid line of performers cramped up against each other just undermined the confidence of the song.

The cast, though, rose to the challenge of this confined space with aplomb. Nick Valois was not an obvious choice for Roger Davis, but he carries the character with just the right balance of angst and verve. And Vanessa De Jager is equally brilliant in the role of Mimi Márquez. Both seemed to reach the limits of their vocal range on opening night, though I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt and assume it was an intentional vocal fault as it always seemed to occur at a moment appropriate for their characters. Their connection on stage was palpable, and thoroughly enjoyable, especially in the critical Light My Candle.

Louiza Blomfield’s Joanne was thoroughly engaging and commanded attention both as a formidable character and as an accomplished vocalist, and she was well matched by Julia Jenkins in the role of Maureen. Adrian Flor brought much needed energy in the role of Angel, though her death during Contact didn’t seem to quite strike the emotional note needed. Again, I think the space may have undermined this critical moment.

Rent could be considered a dark musical, but this production strikes a firm balance between the darkness and the almost obstinate optimism of Jonathan Larson’s book. Everyman Theatre should be congratulated on a fine production. All it needs is a more appropriate venue.

Everyman Theatre presents
Jonathan Larson

Venue: The Courtyard Studio | Canberra Theatre Centre, Civic Square, London Circuit, Canberra
Dates: 6 – 22 December 2012
Tickets: $42.00 – $35.00

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