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think I finally get it.

For 28 years, musical theatre fans have sung (pardon the pun) the praises of Jonathan Larson’s take on Puccini’s La Bohéme. I am of course, referring to Larson’s gritty 90s musical, RENT. When the show opened in 1996 it tapped into a unique moment in the cultural zeitgeist. RENT was revolutionary in the way it approached the AIDS epidemic, addiction, poverty, sexuality and gender.

Almost 30 years on and RENT seems to defy the laws of aging like so many of us elder millennials. Not only has the fashion cycle returned to 90s-grunge-meets-hipster-chic, but we’re struggling with the same fears; living paycheque to paycheque, finding affordable housing, the constant threat of climate change, war, and oh, an epidemic that cost millions of lives.

RENT is somehow even more relevant in 2024 than it was in 1996. The characters, who now exist as musical theatre legend fit neatly into their archetype in a Breakfast Club type way. Mark (Noah Mullins) the aspiring cinematographer, recently dumped by the impossibly irresistible performance artist Maureen (Calista Nelmes), for the highly strung lawyer Joanne (Thndo) sits with his friend and housemate Roger (Jerrod Smith) on Christmas eve in NYC’s Alphabet Avenue. When the electricity is cut and it’s revealed their former friend Benny, (Tana Laga’aia) is evicting them to begin the gentrification process of the neighbourhood all hell breaks loose.

Determined to stick to their principles Mark and Roger rebuff Benny’s offer to live rent-free if they sell their soul to the devil and convince Maureen to cancel her performance/protest. It’s kind of wholesome in starving artist kind of way. Rounding out this ensemble cast is heroin addicted Mimi, (Martha Berhane), gender fluid drag queen, Angel (Carl De Villa) and the professor of anarchy and glue of the group, Tom Collins (Nick Afoa).

There are so many standout performances in this production it’s impossible to choose a favourite. Nelmes’ portrayal of the narcissistic Maureen is only outdone by her vocals which are otherworldly-good. Smith as Mark guides us through the story and proves himself as a Larson-esque figure. Completely at ease on stage, he is our window into bohemia and has some slick choreography (on top of a precarious tabletop no less!). But the night belongs to CollinsNick Afoa’s smooth-as-silk vocals and vulnerability as an actor will leave you emotionally devastated, in the best possible way. The relationship between Collins and Angel is incredibly moving and caused many tears in the audience.

I think the reason RENT has never appealed to me in the past is that it plays into all the cheesy musical theatre tropes of ensemble singing, emotional storylines and over-earnest acting. But where other productions have failed, Shaun Rennie’s RENT delivers. This is the RENT that caused stunned silence on Broadway, ushered in a new era of musical theatre and a generation of wannabe bohemians.

It’s a flawless production that achieves the emotional pathos of the original opera. Soaring and dramatic, touching and tender, RENT cements its place in musical theatre lore. And this time, I’m it’s newest convert. Viva la vie Bohéme!

Event details

LPD Productions presents
by Jonathan Larson

Director Shaun Rennie

Venue: State Theatre | Arts Centre Melbourne VIC
Dates: 17 February 2024 – 7 March 2024
Tickets: $159 – $59.90

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