Noah Mullins and cast of RENT photo by Pia Johnson PhotographyAre Rent-heads satisfied in taking home nothing more than an unconvincing romantic accident, a thin layer of downbeat social context, together with its politics, and a perplexedly strung-together list of songs? Good gracious! The same could be said for an encounter with opera, at times. 

But it was a question I was asking and an aftertaste I got by the time the ensemble whipped into the Finale B for the show’s current Australian tour on opening night at Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre – vibrantly voiced and melodically luminous as it was.

One hundred years after the premiere of Puccini’s much-loved and frequently performed La bohème, along came composer and lyricist Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical, inspired by it, to rock our world.

Larson replaced Puccini’s bohemians and its central love story between the poet Rodolfo and seamstress Mimì in consumption-beset 1830’s Paris with rock guitarist Roger and Latina stripper and drug addict Mimi in Manhattan’s East Village in the midst of the AIDS crisis.

But, while Puccini elevates the romance with unforgettable impact while providing both context and padding at its heels and music that pulses with emotivity, Larson’s work feels like a swampy assortment of ideas that ricochet here and there with overall little agency.

Calista Nelmes and Thndo in RENT photo by Pia Johnson PhotographyIt doesn’t help with its frustratingly dense and mercurial narrative and rambling patchwork of songs – many of which do, however, individually sail in glory – that keep it moving more like a wheezing engine. Not to mention the several embedded “tune ups” and “voice mails” which become annoyingly tedious. 

Larson, unfairly, never lived to see Rent make its off-Broadway premiere, dying just one day before it, at the age of 35, from an aortic dissection. Who knows how he might have revisited it? 

Among several 1996 Tony Awards, it took out the best musical. Up against the likes of similarly modest-sized experimental works such as Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the combined tragedy of Larsen’s death and the show’s portrayal of the marginalised and disadvantaged surely must have resonated.

Rent boldly evokes its time but tries to tick too many boxes – rocky relationships of various persuasions, solid friendships, artistic dreams, drugs, homelessness, landlord issues, public protests and harassment vie for attention. But, with the two lead lovers infected with AIDS, it is the cloak of a death sentence that seems to want to be of focus and yet feels compromised. 

Shaun Rennie’s often frenetic direction similarly tries to pack it all in. The make-believe of theatre isn’t enough to truly inspire in this otherwise handsomely created production.

Dann Barber’s set – a series of scaffolds, the rear of a multi-storey brick tenement building in the background and several roll-about platforms to centre the action – adds up to a visually appealing design. Ella Butler’s costumes are straightforwardly grungy and Paul Jackson’s lighting is a punchy, dynamic blend.

In a plot loosely narrated by Roger’s roommate Mark and which follows Roger and his struggling friends over the course of a year from one Christmas Eve to the next, an array of colourful types are met.

Noah Mullins and Jerrod Smith in RENT photo by Pia Johnson PhotographyNoah Mullins brings youth, geniality and a guarded heart to fledgling filmmaker Mark, while the troubled Roger is potently embodied by Jerrod Smith, knocking out the lyrics with the soulfulness desired and proves his worth in his early Act One solo that finally lights up the stage with One Song Glory.

Martha Berhane is suitably saucy and resilient as Mimi, both flexibly gifted and electrifying in voice. But, from the moment Larson feebly attempts to parallel Puccini with melodic snippets of Che gelida manina in Light My Candlewhen Mimi and Roger meet for the first time, Berhane and Smith’s chemistry similarly rarely lights a fire. Just as toe-curling is Mimi’s deathbed finale which likewise humiliates Puccini before she miraculously lives to see another day.

Nick Afoa gives a compelling sympathetic performance as Collins, the “computer genius, teacher, and vagabond anarchist”, falling for young AIDS-infected drag queen Angel, who Carl De Villa illuminates with de rigueur over-the-top-ness. 

As performance artist Maureen, Calista Nelmes nears stealing both the show and the narrative course, making Over the Moon a throbbing. six-titted hilarious masterpiece and pairs with Thndo’s impeccably presented Joanne, a public interest lawyer she falls in love with, to bring another song highlight with Take Me or Leave Me.

Making the music, a six-piece band led by Andrew Worboys might have an inconspicuous stage presence but they pump the tunes enthusiastically, though at times, to the point of drowning the lyrics.

Larson’s music has a rippling, multi-influenced nature to it, his songs get an energetic blast and Rennie gives it a good shot but Rent certainly feels trapped, of its time and overdue for an overhaul. Perhaps, only a reimagining of it might cement it with greater artistic value. 

State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Tuesday 20 February 2024
Season continues to 7 March 2024

Following the Melbourne season, RENT will head to the Civic Theatre, Newcastle: 15 – 17 March, His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth: 11 – 19 May and the Canberra Theatre Centre: 7 – 13 June 2024. For more information, visit: for details.

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

Review: Paul Selar