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Review: RENT at The Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre

Updated: Feb 25

Review by Wendy Samantha


The late Jonathan Larson has made quite a name for himself over the recent years, allowing his creativity and music genius to be truly showcased.  Making his directorial film debut, Lin-Manuel Miranda breathed life into Larson’s hit biographical musical Tick Tick Boom when it spun into cinemas late 2021.  This movie along with Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of Larson was nominated and won many accolades.  However, it is still Jonathan Larson’s award winning production of Rent that stands out from the crowd.  Ask any theatre lover to sing something from a musical and they are likely to start with “Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes” even if they haven’t seen the show.  Some things just stick with us.  Attending the opening night of Rent: The Musical at The Arts Centre Melbourne supplied an inspiring impact to be carried for life.


Whilst Larson may not have lived to see the full force of how his show affected an audience, it is clear he felt every emotion that is at play on stage.  The characters are gritty and real, and the story urges and intensifies.  There is a bond you form and connect with in so many parts and aspects of this amazing musical production.  Set in the late 80’s, we see 6 young artists face the challenges of everything New York’s East Village has to offer.  It’s cold, it’s Christmas, and amongst trying to truly live there’s the struggle to simply survive. We are greeted with our narrator Mark (Noah Mullins), a documentary filmmaker trying to figure out how to pay the rent.  His best friend Roger (Jerrod Smith), a musician down to his last few smokes and Mimi (Martha Berhane) the exotic dancer is in search for a few matches and a hit to get high.  Enter Collins (Nick Afoa) who is Mark and Roger’s old roommate, he teaches but dreams of opening up a restaurant in Santa Fe.  Creating quite the arousal in a good mix of excitement and energy then is his partner Angel (Carl De Villa) who truly brings life to any party.  Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen (Calista Nelmes) is also in this mix, a performer creating quite a stir and newly dating Joanne (Thndo) the well educated, public interest lawyer.  Then Benny (Tana Laga’aia) the landlord and another former room mate of Mark and Roger’s appears, adding more pressure with financial and building demands.  To make things even more entwined, Benny is also the ex-boyfriend to Mimi.  This is real life.  The story goes on between the characters, to create, to inspire, to leave something in the world that you can be proud of before you die.  We are faced with the harshness of living with HIV, and losing those we adore.  It’s a confrontation of knowing the time we have is a blessing, of using it well, and entertaining those intense feelings that can spiral out of control.  We are thrown into anger and we rage and fire.  We drop to sadness and mourn, blacking out happiness so that it never exists.  We don’t want to feel pain or the hurt.  So we party and parade, expelling thrills and high pitched flirtatious laughter.  Rent is every aspect of real life and we relate to it so easily.  These characters hold a part of us or a part of someone we know and love.


Brilliantly written, you can see the passion Larson had for storytelling.  And this production is a driving success  with every detail and aspect of the integrity contained within this musical meticulously covered by this outstanding and incredibly talented group.  The roar of applause at the curtain call speaks volumes and seeing a full house in cheers and tears at a standing ovation is what makes gold glisten.  And whilst this show is a true treasure, you’ll see only the grinding of a gritty, urban and industrial setting where the characters gather casually on stage for a catch up and get together.  With this grounded opening, it makes for what to come even more astonishing.


Director Shaun Rennie leads a powerful team that allows Rent to give you an emotional punch in the face.  You love every moment, whether it be happy, of grief, or destruction and even if you know the storyline - it’s coming at you like no other.  The movement is fresh, it’s sharp and incredibly edgy.  Choreographer Luca Dinardo leaving you with some moments you’ll never forget.  Andrew Worboys has created magic with his band, driving the story whereby you feel the characters thoughts through the music which is a celebration of the human spirit.  The powerful yet graceful voices enveloped the audience at The Arts Centre with strength and absolute brilliance.  The modularity of the set and flawless movement with pieces add depth and height to the scenes, as does the lighting, well thought out costumes and era appropriate props.


Special moments included two rotating tables that almost floated with the ensemble during “I Should Tell You” showcasing the connection between Roger and Mimi.  It is clear Jerrod Smith has submerged himself in this role, bringing brilliance in his acting and a voice that fits a rock legend.  Martha Berhane was a superb highlight.  The drama that unfolds as her character develops made us shiver alongside her aching heart, and smile when she felt warmth.  Nick Afoa gave us the most emotional vocals in “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” that there truly are no words for.  The list goes on with this stellar cast truly rocking down the house.  Carl De Villa and Calista Nelmes adding a heat and fire with giant extravagant flames.  Of course, the highly anticipated “Seasons of Love” echoed into the night as the cast stood still in a reflection of some small fragment from everyone in the audience.  Then through this beautiful crystal clear water that the joint voices had created, came a sunlit gleam that was ensemble member Hannah McInerney’s solo and the crowd’s support was undeniable.


Through every part of this performance the cast looked proud to be standing on the stage.  They delivered this production of Rent like a force of nature and it is one that you really shouldn’t miss.  


Rent: The Musical is playing at the State Theatre, The Arts Centre Melbourne until the 7th of March 2024.   


Image Credit: Pia Johnson

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