[THEATRE REVIEW] RENT @ State Theatre, Melbourne Arts Centre Review (2024)

A rich array of talent is on display, as love and loss take centre stage in Jonathan Larson’s passion filled musical Rent.

Based on Puccini’s opera La bohème, written in 1895, it tells the story of a year in the life of Bohemian friends living in New York City in the late 1980s.

In the group is the narrator, Mark Cohen (Noah Mullins), a somewhat nerdy, struggling Jewish documentary filmmaker.

His best friend and roommate, Roger Davis (Jerrod Smith), found out he has HIV/AIDS in a note left by his former girlfriend, who then took her own life. A musician, he wants to write one great song before he dies.

He meets and is immediately attracted to 19-year-old Mimi Marquez (Martha Berhane). She works in a strip club, is addicted to heroin and also has HIV/AIDS. Roger finds it hard to commit to her.

Bisexual Maureen Johnson (Calista Nelmes) is a performing artist who says what is on her mind. She used to be Mark Cohen’s boyfriend, but left him for Joanne Jefferson (Thndo).

Like Maureen, Joanne is strong willed – a Harvard-educated public interest lawyer and activist.

Tom Collins (Nick Afoa), also infected with HIV/AIDS, is a computer genius and philosophy professor. Mugged, he is helped by and falls hard for kind-hearted drag queen and street musician Angel Schunard (Carl De Villa).

She, too, is ill, but the pair’s relationship is rock solid. They are devoted to each other.

Benny Coffin III (Tana Laga’aia) used to be Mark and Roger’s roommate, but he married into a rich family. Now, he is their landlord and the opposite of everything for which they stand.

Rent won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, along with four Tony Awards that year, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score.

Larson’s words and lyrics are deeply affecting. There is a great deal of raw emotion apparent throughout, as health and financial pressures take their toll.

Amidst the heartache, there is also tenderness and humour.

Individually and collectively, the 18-strong cast is particularly strong.

Their vocal prowess is mighty impressive, with all the leads given the opportunity to excel … and shine they most certainly do.

There are several high points in the production, as realised by the talented cast.

Among them are Berhane’s vocalisation and gyrations in Out Tonight and Thndo and Mullins’ tango.

Nelmes’ dynamic Over the Moon is adrenaline charged … breathtaking. So, too, the sensitivity of Afoa and De Villa’s performances, while the rendition of Seasons of Love at the start of Act II is a huge crowd pleaser.

It is the big song to come out of Rent and is an enduring classic, with its reference to 500 hundred 25 thousand 600 minutes (the number of minutes in a year).

Choreography, too, is an integral component of Rent. There is a great deal of movement throughout, seamlessly orchestrated by Luca Dinardo.

Dann Barber’s industrial staging works very well in realising the hand to mouth existence of the main players.

Paul Jackson’s lighting design helps realise the multiplicity of mood changes, while the sound design by Evan Drill ensures depth.

Director Shaun Rennie and musical director Andrew Worboys have reinvigorated a show that premiered on Broadway before the turn of the century.

In dealing with mortality, it captures the heart and spirit of a generation.

Rent is playing at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, until 7th March, 2024.

Review by Alex First Photography by Pia Johnson