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  • Theatre, Musicals
  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. The cast of Rent singing onstage
    Photograph: Pia Johnson
  2. The cast of the Australian production of 'Rent'.
    Photograph: Wendell Teodoro

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

The next generation of music theatre stars shine in this ode to survival and community

“Still thirsty?” asks Calista Nelmes’ Maureen, as she reaches the milky peak of the drawn-out, cow-themed performance art piece she performs within Rent. The answer comes swiftly in a not-so-quiet whisper from the stalls: “Yes please!” It’s been a while since Rent – Jonathan Larson’s legendary ‘90s rock musical, known for its anti-establishment attitude – has been treated to a large-scale national tour in Australia, and there’s a strong sense on opening night that the audience has been hankering for a show like this.

Nearly three decades on from Rent’s Broadway premiere, this fresh Australian production prevails in bringing new life to a narrative which follows a close-knit group of artists in New York’s East Village. The key? A diverse, youthful cast brimming with talent that leaves audience members audibly enraptured.

For those unfamiliar, Rent’s central struggle is that of New Yorkers trying to succeed in the midst of poverty, gentrification and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. These friends have been pursuing their dreams (and sometimes just getting by) living rent-free thanks to their former housemate-turned-landlord Benny (Tana Laga’aia), until he suddenly backflips and asks them to cough up last year’s rent. Chaos unfolds as the young creatives try to keep a roof over their heads without losing track of who they are.

The narrative flow is deliberately fragmented, as each character is pushed into survival mode – this is a city where Santa brings basic groceries (or hard drugs) instead of wholesome Christmas cheer. However, this is no one-note tragic tale. Documentarian Mark (Noah Mullins) and his best friend, bereaved musician Roger (Jerrod Smith), support each other through hardship, and the pure love between professor Tom Collins (Nick Afoa) and drag queen Angel (a truly angelic Carl De Villa) is a joy to witness. 

Dann Barber’s seemingly simple scaffold-based set swivels to add another dimension to the narrative, allowing landlord Benny to literally look down on his lowly tennants. Paul Jackson’s lighting is engaging, but excessively jarring at times.  

This outstanding cast realises Rent’s full potential as a musical that’s at times as hopeful as it is devastating. Martha Berhane brings just the right amount of power and vulnerability to the role of Mimi, and the ‘Tango Maureen’ between Mullins’ Mark and THNDO’s Joanne is a highlight thanks to their crackling chemistry.

The strong ensemble embraces camp and makes the most of Luca Dinardo’s choreographic flair to amp up the surreal atmosphere of the musical. Whether crafting haunting harmonies or shapeshifting into a cacophony of concerned parents, this bunch radiates talent. Nevertheless, we must take a moment for Maureen, as portrayed by New Zealander Calista Nelmes, who hits it out of the park in her Australian music theatre debut role.

Some might say the characters in Rent are naïve and unrealistic – why not just get a ‘real job’ and pay the damn bills? They wouldn’t be entirely wrong, but it’s also not nearly so simple. Breaking into the 9-5 isn’t even necessarily an option without the building blocks of stability. Whether you’ll love or loathe this show depends on how you view idealism – as either a useless preoccupation, or something we should aspire to honour. If you know exactly how many minutes there are in a year, you’re almost certain to adore this fresh iteration of a beloved classic.

Ella Butler’s costumes would fit in just as well on Brunswick Street now as they would in ‘90s New York, but that’s not the only element of this production that still rings uncomfortably true. The rent is too high for many of us right now. Whether we’re paying in the form of money we can’t spare, needless exposure to a preventable disease, or tempering our dreams in pursuit of stability, we’ve all got debts to service. But for a spell in the State Theatre at least, there’s no day but today.

Rent is playing at the Arts Centre Melbourne's State Theatre until March 10. Tickets start from $59.90 and are available via the website.

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Ashleigh Hastings
Written by
Ashleigh Hastings


Event website:
From $59.90
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