Rent the Musical – Theatre Review

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Considered a staple for theatre fans, Rent is a musical that had always eluded me. That is, until now when I finally watched LPD Productions’ Melbourne season of Rent, directed by Shaun Rennie with music, lyrics and book by the late Jonathan Larson.

For the uninitiated, Rent is a chronical character study that follows a collective of friends over a year in New York City during the 1990s. Instead of one plot, we follow the development of multiple characters and their sub stories over this short period of time.

The story entails Mark – a budding documentary director with a camcorder that is practically an extension of his arm, best friend and roommate Roger – a forlorn singer-songwriter who is HIV positive, Mimi – a stripper with a drug addiction that is HIV positive and is Roger’s love interest, CollinsMark and Roger’s former roommate who is capable, clever and sensitive but is somewhat lost, Angel – a genuinely sweet and generous trans percussion busker with AIDS that is also Collins’ love interest, Maureen – an experimental and promiscuous performance artist that is Mark’s ex and is now dating Joanne – a well-studied, organised and politically savvy lesbian, and Benny – former roommate of Mark and Roger who is considered a sell-out for marrying rich and buying out the building that Mark and Roger live in. They now owe him rent.

Every character in Rent is young, mostly broke, flawed and have their own demons at play. What makes LPD Productions’ version of Rent special is how bold and ambitious it is. From the simplistic but smart metal scaffolding set design by Dann Barber, made to look like make-shift loft New York apartments (complete with a single mesmerising fan) that can seamlessly shift, rotate or disappear without patrons ever really noticing until the scene has completely changed, to the slick costume designs by Ella Butler making Rent feel modern but still appear appropriate to its 90s era theme, the stunning choreography by Luca Dinardo, especially during ‘La Vie Bohème’ which at a brilliant brief moment recreates Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, or the gorgeous directional choice to have the cast and their characters sing in a circle ‘Seasons of Love’ to each other before turning to serenade the rest of the theatre.

Then we have the production’s stellar cast. With jaw dropping vocals and stage presence, Hannah McInerney’s talents are striking as she wears many hats donning multiple characters without a hitch, equipped with her vocal prowess. Josslynn Hlenti is almost scene-stealing as the feisty homeless lady that I’d dare not mess with. Tana Laga’aia is outstanding as the rejected Benny who married for a better life but still wants to hang out with his mates who feel that he’s no longer the person he was. Jerrod Smith and Martha Berhane are great as star-crossed and possibly mismatched lovers Roger and Mimi who shine in their duets ‘I Should Tell You’ and ‘Without You’, Calista Nelmes and Thndo are incredible as opposites-attract lesbian couple Maureen and Joanne. Together, they flawlessly bring the house down with their sensual vocal battle to ‘Take Me or Leave Me’.

While everyone else was bickering, fighting, constantly getting together and breaking apart, it was Collins and Angel’s story that felt like the beating heart of Rent and were my favourite couple. Steadfast and sincere, the chemistry between Nick Afoa and Carl De Villa feels raw, real and believable. Even when the two aren’t singing or saying anything, the physicality and expressions from this pair is mind-blowing. No, really. I had to pick myself off the floor (not literally) from hearing their vocals in ‘I’ll Cover You (Reprise)’ and ‘Contact’ respectively. The way that Collins and Angel appear to care for each other and bleed love unconditionally is so wholesome and borderline heartbreaking (Also, thank-you to Shaun Rennie and Ella Butler for giving Angel their wings).

And then there is Mark with his internal struggles of wanting to passionately live for his art but also understanding the need to have money to pay bills and survive. Unless you’ve never had a dream, there’s a little part of Mark in all of us. Our day jobs don’t necessarily define us nor compromise who we are, which is great to know but it is something that Mark never necessarily learns for himself. On a deeper level, Mark’s constant need to capture his friends despite all their issues, their fighting and sicknesses so that he has something permanent for them to live on in forever – is a beautiful notion.

For the performance that I attended, I was lucky to witness Lawrence Hawkins’ professional debut in the role of Mark (normally played by Noah Mullins). Hawkins portrays the iconic character and narrator as gentle, quietly observant, and thoughtfully caring. Consistent and charming from start to finish, Hawkins’ powerful vocals and captivating stage presence were met with frequent well-deserved loud and supportive cheers at Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre. I loved his Mark. It is clear that Hawkins is a natural and could have easily fooled me that he’s been in professional theatre for years. I hope to see more of Hawkins in theatre in future.

The true hero of Rent though is none other than the late Jonathan Larson. While the story and its dialogue can be convoluted and a bit intimidating at times, it is Larson’s music that shines through. The way his songs have been composed often leaves performers with nowhere to hide due many acapella moments. But this only makes Rent feel more brave and engaging than the average musical. Maureen’s ‘Over the Moon’ daringly encourages audience participation, Joanne’s multiple phone conversations in ‘We’re Okay’ never feels out of place, Roger’s ‘One Song Glory’ cuts deep from the very beginning, and ‘No Day But Today’ preaches to live for now as life is fleeting. I would even be surprised if there were any dry eyes left in the room after Nick Afoa’s Collins sung to the heavens the soaring and exquisite ‘I’ll Cover You (Reprise)’.

Personally, having avoided seeing any filmed media of Rent because I wanted my first time to be a stage production, I’m so grateful that this version was my first ever experience of the iconic musical. It’s aggressively brilliant and infectiously moving in all the right ways, and it made me cry.

Rent, much like the goals of its character Mark, has captured a moment in time of the 90s and the struggles that many of its youth faced with poverty, the cost of living, addiction, and an epidemic that took many lives. While the HIV/AIDS epidemic is no longer as severe nor as relevant as it used to be, there are many topics in Rent that remain current and still hit home.

LPD Productions’ must-see production of Rent proudly embraces and champions what Jonathan Larson left behind. I honestly believe that he would have been humbly touched by this production if he were still alive. Watching Rent also made me sad for what could have been the evolution of his music had he the opportunity. Instead, what we do have is lightning in a bottle with a legacy of its own.

It’s evident that the cast and creatives behind this wonderful production have revived this iconic musical with so much love and respect for its original source. Yet somehow, this show still makes its own mark, well worthy of any praise. Bravo.

LPD ProductionsRent the Musical is currently playing at Arts Centre Melbourne‘s State Theatre until the 7th of March. It will then head to Newcastle, Perth in May, and over to Canberra in June 2024.
For more information and ticketing, please visit:
https://rentmusical.au

Photography by Pia Johnson.

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