RENT: The Musical received a standing ovation when its Australian production premiered in Brisbane on 30 January 2024.
Book, music and lyrics are by Jonathan Larson who lived down the road from where the musical is set in New York’s East Village. Obviously, at the time, this was not the best part of town to reside in, let alone be behind in the rent, facing hunger and homelessness.
The story focuses on a cluster of bohemian artists trapped in impoverished circumstances. At that time the AIDS epidemic was spreading amongst susceptible minority groups such as theirs. Most of them are already infected. Although this adds an element of inescapable helplessness to their situation, clearly they are resilient beings and hope prevails.
The plot has its origins in Puccini’s famed opera, La Boheme. New York replaces Paris and the modern epidemic is AIDS not consumption. Post pandemic, we are thankful that TB, AIDS and Covid are no longer rampant and unbeaten. Perhaps in the future we’ll be attending a musical about Covid. Please, not just yet!
Both Puccini and Larson’s plots challenge the perceived romance of the bohemian ideal. As does Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. This provokes conscience and consideration in the thinking audience. Those of us who are artists are drawn to the concept of bohemian liberty and creative immersion.
However, if there’s a lesson to be learned it’s the basic, albeit boring one that the human body needs shelter, warmth, nourishment and medical care. This musical makes that clear without completely destroying our artistic dreams of success.
The cast have been well selected and their professional vocal abilities contrasted strikingly with the shabby clothing worn by their characters. All of the solos were excellently delivered. Calista Nelmes strong vocals were an obvious standout in ‘Maureen’s performance’. Martha Berhane (Mimi) and Carl de Villa (Angel) were smokingly hot and appropriately amusing in their raunchy roles.
Nelmes and Thndo (Joanne) who fought throughout the show, needed a room when performing their hot duet of forgiveness and love. Noah Mullins (Mark) was flawless in his central role.
This is a dynamic, enthusiastic, young cast. Reading through their impressive bios, every one of them is a credit to those who have trained them. The songs in RENT are complex. Good, clear delivery by cast members is crucial to maintaining audience attention and comprehension.
The production creatives have created an immersive, persuasive atmosphere. Although we’re weathering a heatwave here in Queensland, I too felt cold, hungry and homeless.
As we’ve also recently had both Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the celebratory context was timely and relatable. At least it is for us here in Brisbane, who are fortunate to see this Broadway success make its Australian debut.
Stage sets primarily comprised of skeletal scaffolding on wheels enables ease of movement and fast scene changes in full view. It is the backdrop of an old brick tenement building with windows which effectively grounds the setting in convincing realism.
Initially, at the commencement of Act 1, I had strong misgivings that I wouldn’t find this musical compelling. I thought the songs (25 in Act 1 and 17 in Act 2) would be too long and too clustered. I thought the setting looked too basic. I was soon won over and all doubts dispelled. That’s what a good production does: it wins the praise of cautious critics.
Throwing all caution to the wind, I strongly advise voyeuristic audience members to keep looking around the stage during the songs. There are things to be seen in this adults only stage show.
RENT: The Musical
Playhouse – QPAC, Cultural Precinct, South Bank (Brisbane)
Performance: Tuesday 30 January 2024
Season continues to 11 February 2024
Following its Brisbane season, RENT: The Musical will tour to Melbourne, Newcastle, Perth and Canberra. For more information, visit: www.rentmusical.au for details.
Images: Noah Mullins and Cast of RENT – photo by Pia Johnson Photography | The Cast of RENT – photo by Pia Johnson Photography
Review: Michele-Rose Boylan