Drum Theatre, Dandenong
The Escapees Theatre Company
Until 7 October
On Thursday I attended the opening night of Escapees Theatre Company’s production of Rent. The 1990s is not often the first era that comes to mind when talking about musical theatre but in a period that saw many revivals of classic shows that came before them and stage adaptations of multiple animated Disney films, Broadway still offered many original musical greats for the masses and some say that no 90s show has left a lasting legacy and cultural impact quite like the late, great Jonathan Larson’s magnum opus. Its many groundbreaking themes, elements and representation shined a light on the struggling artists of the world, those living the bohemian life in the Alphabet City neighbourhood of New York and those living with HIV/AIDS like no other musical had really done before, evidently changing the musical theatre world forever. With that being said, adaptations of Rent are not to be taken lightly as it’s one of the many shows out there that has to be done well or not at all, especially when getting its themes and overall message across to the audience and after watching Escapees production, it was plain to see that they had what it took to achieve this and passed the test with flying colours.
When I write each of my reviews, the title of production monarchs are usually given to those onstage for stellar performances that relate to us, blow us away and get us thinking. However, there are occasional instances where the kings and queens of the production are in the prod team and Escapees latest production was proof of it, especially when their efforts shaped each performance and the spectacle as a whole into pure gold with their Midas touch, rightfully placing crowns on all their heads as they reigned supreme. Steve McPhail made his dreams come true in the director’s chair with a dream show of his and had a creative vision that stunningly captured the grungy, bohemian lifestyle present in 90s New York like it was right out of an award winning documentary feature, all the while successfully getting Rent’s message across to the entire audience and paying tribute to those we lost in the AIDS epidemic in a poignant manner. Under McPhail’s spell, every actor turned in the performance of a lifetime by allowing them to discover the rawest of their emotions to inform their portrayals and ensure that each character came to them as naturally as possible in a touching and trustworthy directorial feat that connected with us on the deepest of levels. Musical director Elyse Carmichael tackled Jonathan Larson’s complicated score like it was nothing as her methods behind the baton were prestigious and borderline professional when recreating the rock influenced compositions. Numbers like La Vie Boheme, both versions of I’ll Cover You, Take Me Or Leave Me and even the musical’s most timeless tune Seasons Of Love could not be faulted and with each vocalist being a mighty powerhouse, Carmichael delivered to us a masterclass on flawless conducting and vocal control and formation that kept everyone aurally satisfied. I wasn’t sure whether Rent would feature any complex choreography or not but sure enough, Amy Miles and Georgia Margaux provided us with the goods in their contemporary hip hop, tango and vogue inspired dances that kept the fun alive in the uptempo numbers and had us in our feels in the ballads. Each of Miles and Margaux’s flirtatious and fulfilling routines were able to seduce us with their physical storytelling and captivate the crowd so effectively, our eyes might as well have been glued to every dancer as they could ensure plenty of action even when they were standing still to make each dance number a well crafted one whether they were making statements, making memories or making love.
Rent’s production team may have been instrumental in bringing the musical to life in the most honourable of fashions but their visions wouldn’t have come to fruition without its strong cast. There wasn’t a single person on the stage who failed to be an absolute standout performance wise and all the leads comprised of individuals who were in my opinion, the perfect casting choices for their respective roles but before we dive into their efforts further, we begin with those in the ensemble and featured cast. Many of whom often took centre stage in the larger group numbers with their soulful vocal chops and they constantly made their presence known in their respective scenes with their fierce characterisation skills and ability to make the musical’s setting appear even fuller than what it already was. We the audience couldn’t help but celebrate the 525,600 minutes alongside them whether they were struggling on the streets, mourning the loss of those they love or iconically lamenting the ringing of Christmas bells, cementing the fact that without them there is never any show.
Moving on to the leads, I believe all eight main players were like royalty with their portrayals as each of them delivered triple threat performances that showcased their wide, wild vocal ranges, visionary acting versatility and dancing feet triumphantly tailored to their specific level of movement skills. To start us off with his portrayal of a songwriter yearning to write one great song before he dies but pushes those he loves away in fear of losing them all the while losing himself, Nate Arnold gave us an honest look into what loss and grief can do to one’s mental stability as Roger Davis in an angsty and amiable performance that defined the prices of pride and the avoidance of truth to stop reality from creeping in. As Benjamin Coffin III, a landlord and former creative who turns his back on the friends and community he once loved after coming into money and upper class society but begins to see the light after witnessing their horrific reality firsthand, Simon Jones defined redemption and repentance as we got to see both sides of his character in 20/20 vision thanks to his incorporation of the human element in a performance that highlighted the courageous act of change. For her take on a dancer who’s life hangs in the balance thanks to a devastating virus and crippling drug habit but still yearns for the lover she craves the most in her life in lieu of her fix, Olivia Exposito delivered an exotic and emotionally charged performance as Mimi Marquez in one of her most acclaimed outings to date as she both convinced the crowd that her own health was declining along with her character’s in order to add to her all too real story arc and keep her fun spirit alive like Mimi’s attitude on life all throughout the night, especially in her face melting renditions of Light My Candle and Out Tonight. In a dream role of a documentary film maker afraid of being left alone as HIV/AIDS takes its toll on all those closest to him while assuring their lasting legacy of a chosen family, Nathan Slevin was one of my personal favourites of the night as he embodied everything that Mark Cohen stood for and his unbreakable bond with his fellow castmates allowed his harmoniously hearty and heroic portrayal to be all the more powerful and symbolic and stand up with some of the great performance we’ve seen this year.
Some of the key highlights in the cast revolved around the two homosexual couples, one anatomically male and one anatomically female, and their undeniable chemistry whenever they collided in heated and tender love scenes or bitter rows. Starting with the pair that was Maureen Johnson and Joanne Jefferson respectively, George Cowell and Avi Araneta-Puyat battled but balanced each other out with their differing personalities of promiscuity and promise and the jealousy on both parts fuelled the fire they both had burning inside for one another. Cowell unleashed Maureen’s passion on everyone in the stands all by herself in her big bang of an introduction with the number Over The Moon, meeting expectations that were made after her background outline in Tango Maureen in the most spectacular of fashions; Araneta-Puyat meanwhile asserted that she would be the one laying down the law both figuratively and literally early on as Joanne, displaying the art of frustration in the most luscious of affairs; and together both ladies were unstoppable as they had tongues wagging in stimulating and steamy performances that had the audience begging for more and would keep many of them coming back for more just like their two characters would. Finally, we have the now world beloved theatre coupling of Angel Dumott Schunard and Tom Collins whose form was taken by Nick Sheridan and Coby Gregg respectively in momentous and mystical portrayals that had all the theatre patrons believing in everlasting love by the time the curtain closed. Fabulous was Sheridan’s middle name during the night with his outgoing poise matching his character’s personality with an open, compassionate heart reminiscent to the spiritual being his character is named after to boot; we all fell in love with him just as much as Collins did and our hearts were equally as broken when he succumbs to the AIDS virus in his tragic exit. As for Gregg, his entire performance history was leading up to this moment as his suitability for Collins fit like a glove; although less outgoing than his onstage partner, he too was able to have the auditorium fall in love with him as he he cherished and cared for the love of his life in his final months, kept Angel’s spirit alive in himself and his chosen family long after he passed and serenaded us all with a soothing style of speaking and singing that had us swooning. Sheridan and Gregg’s character connection was immediate and when united, they shared a love that could move mountains and if the force between them was any stronger, they would have flown across the sky.
Escapees latest production was a departure from the company’s two previous comical shows, still their bittersweet but beautiful adaptation of Rent may be one of the deepest productions in their repertoire to date and has the potential to put the company in a whole new league of Melbourne’s amateur theatre circuit with its dramatic storytelling, flawless characterisations and prod team 101. Doors were opened, opportunities were seized and tributes were fitting, this is the kind of show we need more of in our community and the company has me eager for what’s to come when they return in the new year. Special shoutout to everyone associated with Rent from the cast to the crew on a brilliant opening night that began Showtober with a bang and with only one weekend of shows, do yourselves a favour and grab your tickets hot off the press while you still can support the company and local theatre. Congratulations Escapees for a great start to you final season of 2023, chookas for the rest of run, remember the love and celebrate remember a year in the life of friends.
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