RENT (review)

Noah-Mullins-and-cast-of-RENT-photo-by-Pia-Johnson-PhotographyWhether the global success of Rent is due to the legend surrounding the death of the writer and composer of the work, Jonathan Larson, just one day before his show opened in New York, or because of the quality of the writing which earned Larson a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the show multiple Tony Awards, Rent continues to be a magnet for audiences and creatives alike.

Rent is a director’s show, in much the same way as abstract shows like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar offer possibilities for daring interpretations. Shaun Rennie has seized the opportunity of this possibility by surrounding himself with an outstanding design team, a creative musical director in Andrew Worboys, a great band, and a carefully chosen cast of extraordinary young actor/singers to bring his vision to fruition.

Canberra theatre-goers are already familiar with Rennie’s work both as  a performer; he played Bert in an excellent production of Mary Poppins opposite Alinta Chidzey, who went on to star in the national productions of Chicago and Moulin Rouge: The Musical; and as the director of a superb production of Wicked, both for Free Rain Theatre in this very theatre. So his imaginative direction of this production of Rent comes as no surprise.

Dann Barber’s initially stark scaffolding setting, evocatively lit by Paul Jackson, provides a  constant parade of visual surprises as components are carefully manipulated around the stage. Ella Butler’s appropriately op-shop style costumes, also surprised with the realisation of how carefully and imaginatively the various components have been chosen and styled, especially those for the street-hawkers. Creative moves by choreographer Luca Dinardo provide the ensemble with plenty of challenges with which to keep the audience visually pleasured.

But particularly, Rennie’s astute casting of emerging young performers on whom he has relied to bring to life the compelling characters Larson has created to tell his story of a particularly significant year in New York when many  young people were coping with the ravages of AIDS and homelessness.

All are beautiful singers and gifted actors, totally invested in their roles. Charismatic Noah Mullins is captivating as the aspiring documentary filmmaker, Mark, who records events even while narrating them.

Martha Berhane is riveting as the tragic Mimi who survives by dancing in adult clubs but who is unable to cope when her attempts to seduce musician, Roger, (Jerrod Smith) himself coping with his recent AIDS diagnosis, are rejected.

Calista Nelmes and Thndo in RENT photo by Pia Johnson PhotographyCalista Nelmes commands the stage as the outwardly confident performance artist, Maureen, who is insecure in her relationship with dominatrix, Joanne, (Thndo). Nelmes’ performances of Over the Moon and Take Me or Leave Me are high points in the show.

Another of many highpoints is that of Nick Afoa with his portrayal of the worldly wise philosophy professor, Collins, who almost stops the show with his superb rendition of I’ll Cover You, following the death of gender fluid drag queen, Angel, touchingly portrayed at this performance by Chad Rosete.

Rent is very much an ensemble show mainly sung-through. In this production the singing is outstanding. The opening of the second act with the full-cast forming a single line across the stage to perform the signature song, Seasons of Love, being particularly memorable.

The only grumble is not with the direction, design or performances but with the author, who famously took his inspiration from the opera La Boheme.

Experienced opera director, Rennie is of course familiar with this opera, and the references to Larson’s inspiration are more obvious in this production than any previous version of Rent experienced by this reviewer.

Anyone familiar with the opera knows that Mimi doesn’t survive. Therefore Larson’s decision to have Mimi, (who in his musical is suffering from AIDS and no doubt, given her side-hustle, other diseases) revive, survive and happily participate in the finale, is not only ludicrous, but robs the show of what should have been a shattering finale rather than a happy singalong.

Canberra Theatre – Canberra Theatre Centre, Civic Square, Canberra
Performance: Tuesday 11 June 2024
Season continues to 15 June 2024

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Images: Noah Mullins, Jerrod Smith and the Cast of RENT – photo by Pia Johnson Photography | Calista Nelmes and Thndo in RENT – photo by Pia Johnson Photography

Review: Bill Stephens OAM