‘Rent’ was ablaze.
Though a story of drug addiction, homelessness, and disease, ‘Rent: The Musical’ was ablaze with love, laughs and talent. The singing will give you goosebumps – a must-add show to the musical-lovers’ docket this season.
‘Rent’ originated in New York and began its Broadway run in 1996, winning multiple Tony Awards including Best Musical. The characters are a group of artists living in New York City’s East Village. Some are fighting to keep creating art as gentrification threatens to leave them homeless; others are struggling with addiction and disease amid America’s HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.
Despite the heavy subject matter of Jonathan Larson’s book, music and lyrics, LPD Productions’ show brought plenty of smiles and enthusiastic cheering to QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre – all for an incredible cast whose vocals were impeccable. Kudos to musical director Andrew Worboys and associate musical director Dylan Pollard for a truly spine-tingling production; and great to see glimpses of the live band on stage throughout.
Noah Mullins showed off an impressive vocal range, nailing every note as narrator and aspiring videographer Mark. His comedic timing, facial expressions and execution of choreography were perfect, making ‘Tango: Maureen’ a standout number in Act I for its energy and flair, and allowing him to lead ‘La Vie Boheme’ expertly.
Rugby player-turned-performer Nick Afoa seemed to fill the stage with charisma as Collins. He played the part with a laidback warmth that complemented the verve of his love interest, played by crowd-favourite Carl de Villa. De Villa’s Angel earned many laughs in their commanding performance of a person who chose love over hate in everything they did.
Martha Berhane (recently in Brisbane as Eliza in ‘Hamilton’) dazzled the audience with her clear-as-a-bell voice and drew Jerrod Smith’s tortured Roger out of his shell in their duets. Kudos to costume designer Ella Butler, particularly for Roger– perfectly depicting the 1991 New York City look.
Tana Laga’aia was solid as Benny, a foil for Roger’s gritty commitment to life as a tortured artist, but unfortunately, his vocals were hard to hear in Tuesday night’s performance (hopefully a temporary glitch).
Thndo as Joanne and Calista Nelmes as Maureen lit the stage on fire with their rendition of ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ – a spinning, sensual duet between two powerhouse women. Nelmes’ Australian debut in ‘Rent’ will surely be the first of many shows here with such a strong voice and commanding stage presence. Her first scene, ‘Over the Moon’ (with performance and concept consulting by Sarah Enright) will leave a lasting memory for the moo-ing crowd, for its absurdity and pure fun.
The talents of the supporting performers weren’t wasted by director Shaun Rennie and associate director Leah Howard, as they were tasked with quirky character bits and creative scene changes that kept the pace well. Anna Francesca Armenia, Kelsi Boyden, Josslyn Hlenti, Lawrence Hawkins, Sam Richardson, Chad Rosete, Theodore Williams, Mariah Gonzalez, and Sam Harmon are all actors to watch in their own right, with Hannah McInerney’s solo vocals in ‘Seasons of Love’ a startlingly beautiful delight for the audience.
Lighting design by Paul Jackson and set design by Dann Barber worked together to create an industrial-looking 1991 East Village, complete with crude scaffolding, broken pipes and strings of lights. The props complemented the storytelling well: cardboard cutouts of police officers, the squeegee in the hands of the homeless and the New Yorkers covered head to toe in jackets, men’s ties, or handbags to sell. The scene changes were flawless and exciting, with the set spinning and detaching to make new spaces.
Potential areas for improvement are minor. A few lighting cues could be tightened to ensure the end of songs are punctuated accurately. The choice to keep the actors’ backs to the audience during key dialogue (or Roger mostly out of sight while singing in ‘Without You’) could be reconsidered to ensure the emotions and chemistry are fully on display.
Choreography by Luca Dinardo was at its best in the manic energy of ‘La Vie Boheme’ and large ensemble numbers, as the performers threw themselves into the often-raunchy movements. The busy upbeat numbers also contrasted nicely with the simplicity of the classic ‘Seasons of Love’.
As the show’s tagline says, there’s “no day but today” to get your tickets to see this love letter to art and life. You won’t be disappointed with the fiercely burning talent as ‘Rent’ continues to set the stage ablaze.
‘Rent’ performs until Sunday 11 February 2024 at QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre in Brisbane before heading to Melbourne, Newcastle, Perth and Canberra (February through June). For more information visit the Rent website here.