Like many musicals, every production of, Rent is somehow a bit different, especially as more time passes since the iconic rock musical’s debut on Broadway now over 25 years ago. Rent went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (awarded posthumously to its creator, Jonathan Larson who tragically died at the age of 35, just a day before its first Off-Broadway performance) and received four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
In Brisbane kick-off of its national tour, the 2024 Australian production proves to be a perfect balance between honouring the original text and updating it to satisfy long-time Rentheads and new audience members alike. This is no easy feat given how grounded the storyline is in its time and place setting. Loosely based on Puccini’s 1896 opera La bohème (which was in turn based on the 1851 novel Scenes of Bohemian Life by Henri Murger), Rent tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists. These young people are trying to survive in Lower Manhattan’s East Village in the thriving 1980s days of bohemian culture, but also the shadow of HIV/AIDS. And while it will always serve as a reminder of a time of fear and discrimination, as we are shown, at its core this is a still a story of beautiful characters and their relationships.
Struggling documentary filmmaker Mark (Noah Mullins) serves as a sometimes narrator as he captures the lives of the core group consisting of moody musician Roger (Jerrod Smith), night club dancer Mimi (Martha Berhane), now-rich sell-out Benny (Tana Laga’aia), Mark’s chaotic ex-girlfriend Maureen (Calista Nelmes) and her new partner, crusading lawyer Joanne (Thndo). As the story of a year in the life of the group begins, more members of the Alphabet City avant-garde are added through the arrival of lecturer Tom Collins (Nick Afoa) and drag artist Angel (Carl De Villa).
The vivid realisation of their stories of struggle and joy begins energetically against a typical backdrop representing New York’s East Village. Faithful as it might be to the aesthetic of the musical’s early sensibility, Dann Barber’s set design comes with its own marks, through use of a 3-piece multilayered platform to be revolved, broken apart and re-assembled for a range of scenes. They include the spirited, triumphant Act One crescendo of ‘La Vie Bohème’, which is, thanks to Luca Dinardo, choreographed to perfection to provide a series of vibrant visual tableaux. And Maureen’s anti-capitalist protest piece (subtly peppered with some modern US political references) is epic in scale and impact, thanks to Performance and Concept Consultant Sarah Enright.
It is always about the music with Rent, as it barely breaks during the show’s duration. The entire musical is brilliantly performed by a live band that is showcased from time to time from behind the Alphabet City building fronts, such as when Berhane bursts forth for Mimi’s high-energy attempt to seduce Roger, ‘Out Tonight’. With musical direction by Andrew Worboys, the band not only captures, but enhances the varied musical influences within the score, finding new melodies in its titular number and a paired-back and percussive ‘Santa Fe’, yet respecting the simple harmonies of the show’s Act Two opener, ‘Seasons of Love’.
Ella Butler’s quirky, detailed costume design also supports the storytelling through each phase of the year’s journey, while Paul Jackson’s lighting travels the audience from the brightness of Mark’s hope for legacy through ‘One Song Glory’, to the melancholy blue of mourning that comes as part of the year’s five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes. Evan Drill’s crisp sound design electrifies the energy, ensuring that pin-drop poignant moments land with emotional resonance. Indeed, although it is energetic from the outset, the production finds poignancy in many moments, such as the ‘Life Support’ of a HIV support group meeting and the heartbreak of Mimi’s stunning ‘Without You’, which sees the Playhouse Theatre filled with a silence that is broken only by audience sobs.
Although all performances are all excellent, the standouts come from the portrayal of characters who enter as the story unfolds. Nelmes is an outstanding vocalist, which makes ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ a particularly powerful duet between her and Thndo, as the wacky Maureen and controlling Joanne. And Thndo’s performance is one of many nuanced reactions that layers Joanne’s character with additional agency. Afoa’s vocals are a standout and he also hits all the required dramatic notes to capture Collins’ gentleness. Similarly, De Villa’s sensitivity beyond the bold of Angel, layers the character to increase audience investment in the story. The resulting sweet and tender specialness of the Collins and Angel relationship is the greatest joy of this production, in their respective enthusiasm of infatuation and then as the couple starts making plans to escape New York City together.
Rent is an indisputable hit of a show, of its time but also still so much more. Under Shaun Rennie’s direction, this modern classic of musical theatre continues to burn bright with energy. Along with the excitement that this engenders, there is also a comfort that comes from its focus on life and living, and ultimately uplifting messaging about forgetting regret, valuing the love in your life and keeping in mind that every day is a gift. With an immediate standing ovation and two opening night curtain calls in acclaim of the talent, passion and pathos just shared, there is certainly much to celebrated about this Rent revival.
Rent is at QPAC’s, Playhouse Theatre until 11 February 2024, before heading to Melbourne (February 2024), Newcastle (March), Perth (May) and Canberra (June)
For more of Meredith Walker’s writings on theatre, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane