This new production of Jonathan Larson’s multi-award-winning rock musical Rent opened to a standing ovation at Brisbane’s QPAC Playhouse, a solid kick-off for a national tour including seasons in Melbourne, Newcastle, Perth, and Canberra.
Performed with high energy and emotion by an outstanding cast, Rent reminds us to live and love for today. Swirling with righteous anger, youthful rebellion and powerful tenderness, this production is directed by Shaun Rennie, with musical direction by Andrew Worboys and choreography by Luca Dinardo.
Loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème, which was in turn based on the 1851 novel Scenes of Bohemian Life by Henri Murger, Rent follows a group of impoverished young artists in New York City’s East Village. It’s 1991 and Mark (played by Noah Mullins) is an emerging documentary filmmaker, rooming with musician and former heroin addict Roger (Jerrod Smith), who has barely left the house since the suicide of his girlfriend and discovering he has HIV.
In their orbit are their neighbour Mimi (Martha Berhane), philosophy professor Collins (Nick Afoa), drag queen Angel (Carl De Villa), former-housemate-turned-landlord Benny (Tana Laga’aia), Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen (Calista Nelmes) and Maureen’s new girlfriend Joanne (thndo). Mark videos their unfolding lives as they strive to love joyfully and whole-heartedly under the shadow of HIV/AIDS, addiction and poverty.
Under Rennie’s direction, the cast bubbles with talent, energy and emotion. The performances are vocally outstanding and there is an excellent and enduring chemistry between all the characters as they confront and comfort one another.
Larson’s score is performed live by an onstage band. Konrad Ball (bass), Cypress Bartlett (drums), and Nick Drescher (guitar) are seated behind the building facade backdrop and are occasionally glimpsed through its windows.
Dann Barber’s set includes a jigsaw of stairways and platforms that are shifted smoothly by the cast, often while one of the leads is performing on top of them. The stage is bordered by metal scaffolding evoking apartment fire escapes and is framed by an artfully haphazard array of lights, cords, and now-obsolete technology. Costuming (Ella Butler) distinguishes the lead actors from the ensemble while connecting with the surrounding colour palette.
The orgiastic dance scene preceding Angel’s death is gorgeously staged, with the cast silhouetted behind plastic sheeting and lit in shades of pink and red. Lighting design by Paul Jackson contributes significantly to the atmosphere of each scene, from colourful Christmas bulbs and warm golden lighting to the red-lit tango and dramatic changes during Maureen’s protest performance. The finale includes projected video, designed by Susie Henderson, that splices footage of the actors with historical footage of marches and ACT UP protests.
As much as it captures a highly specific moment in time, Rent remains a relevant and resonant rumination on mortality, love and community.
Rent plays at the Playhouse Theatre, QPAC until 11 February before touring to Melbourne, Newcastle, Perth, and Canberra.