Once upon a time in 1996, there was a musical I fell in love with. I was in my final year of uni, I was regularly commuting up to Ava and Susan's, a CD store that had nothing but musicals and film scores on its shelves in the Sydney Town Hall arcade, and picking up new and classic scores. And there was this new rock musical based on a Puccini opera about young people in contemporary New York. And I listened. And I fell in love and I commited large amounts of the lyrics to memory.
It helped that I was a precocious lad who was hyperinformed by most of the references - I'd already started on my Sondheim obsession (the other CD I bought at the same time as "Rent" was the original cast of "Company"). And it helped that I was young and still living with my parents and about to move out and face the big wide world of responsibility, and I was the prime market for a tale of rebellious artists and their interconnecting personal lives who resisted selling out and embraced the chance to let their freak flag fly.
I'm older now, and I've paid off one mortgage, have moved to a bigger house and am in the middle of paying off another. But those wild young kids still have an appeal to me. I saw the 1998 Australian production three times (taking advantage of the "$20 tickets for the front three rows, available at the box office two hours before the performance, queue out the front for as long as you like beforehand" rule) and grinned like a maniac (particularly the night when a young actress called Natalie Basingthwaite played Maureen). I'm aware the material has its weaknesses (in particular, I can opine for ages exactly how crappy a song "Your Eyes" is and how it lets the whole show down) but I have too much love for the rest of the songs to really let anything like that ruin things. I've got a copy of the final broadway performance on DVD and have watched it somewhat frequently too.
Which is to say ... I'm very partial to a particular way of doing Rent, which is big, broad, and dramatic. So when Everyman (yes, I've almost got to this production, thank the lord) advised they were doing Rent in the Courtyard studio, I was skeptical. It's a musical with loudness and a bit of spectacle, how can you squeeze it in there?
The answer is ... by being a tad less loud and a lot more intimate, and keeping the show about the people. Which is what it always was, at its core - these lovers, artists and philosophers, all struggling to make sense of their messy and complicated lives.
It doesn't hit at once how successfully this works - in fact, the first time I realised the benefits was about five or six songs in, during Roger's "One Song Glory" solo (the first solo number of the show). Suddenly everything draws in, and we're focussed on one lost man, trying to make his mark and afraid he may fail. Nick Valois' performance is not perfect (among other things, his harmonies need work), but in this scene, and in a lot of his acting, he brings real soul and pathos.
Really owning and taking advantage of this intimacy is Vanessa de Jaeger, who is transcendantally good as Mimi. She's the first I've seen, or heard, who's really looked like a junkie, and has looked that young and that broken. Her emotions are raw across her face and her body - in tiny gestures that would get lost in a bigger space - in glances and in moments. You really feel a lot has gone on in this young woman's life to bring her to this point. Her entrance in "Light My Candle" starts very fragile - growing in confidence as she uses her sexuality to manipulate. And then the gobsmacking "Another Day" - Roger's resistance is almost physically abusive in a way that is uncomfortable to watch, and you can feel the pain of his rejection across de Jaeger and her desperate need to get past that rejection and grab onto love like a liferaft.
Elsewhere in the cast ... It's good to see Louiza Blomfield unleash her powerful voice and equally powerful comic chops on the Canberra stage again, and it's also good to welcome Julia Jenkins for added hilarity and to match Blomfield note for note in my favourite lesbian love duet ever, "Take me or leave me". Jarrad West adds to his army of charming portrayals with a Collins that is loveable, funny (though his "I'll cover you (reprise)" failed to break my heart...), while Adrian Flor was a giddy delight as Angel (though, again with the nitpicks, his voice was maybe a little too Carol Channing, and one of the metal bars he was drumming on during "Today 4 U" gave out more of a "ping" than the "clunk" it was supposed to). Matthew Chardon O'Dea's Mark has the nervy jewishness down pat and does well in the somewhat difficult "observer" role. And Will Huang gives Benny a nice drive, keeping the character from being a simple villain of the piece, rather another person who's mixed up in the same complex world as the rest of them instead.
Two ensemble highlights for me was, first, the chance to see Amy Fitzpatrick acting and singing on stage (I've only previously seen her as a choreographer - she's got a powerhouse voice and I'd like to hear it again soon!), and second, Lachlan Ruffy for two standout cameos - his reading of "I'm a New Yorker, fear's my life" hit the laughs right, and his special dancing way of taking restaurant orders during "La Vie Boheme" also drew the eye.
Nick Griffin's band is tight and hits all the notes nicely without dominating. Jordan Kelly's choreography is mostly pretty good (for a show that I'd usually think needs not-a-lot-of-choreography - the only instance I'd question is during "Out Tonight", where, honestly, I was so busy focussing on DeJaeger, the decision to have three other dancers elsewhere on stage felt like an unnecessary adornment).
Is this the perfect production of Rent? No, partially beause I've so assimilated Rent by ozmosis by now that the perfect production for me can only be directed by me, starting me, to an audience of me. But this is a fascinating version that is well worth the watching.