REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★
Jonathan Larson’s RENT opened Off-Broadway in 1996 and became a global phenomenon. The show would earn multiple Tony Awards along with a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Though Larson himself would never see the impact of his masterwork – passing suddenly in the early hours of the very day the show would open to the public – its longevity serves as a testament to the emotional resonance of Larson’s creation and an embodiment of its ever-present message, “No day but today”.
RENT, having previously been staged by the Hayes Theatre Company in 2015, is now re-imagined for the Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre for its 25th Anniversary. Written as a joyful rock musical, RENT celebrates the resilience of the bohemians living in New York in the 1980s and 90s. The production itself focuses on and celebrates the people that brought their music, art, fashion, and dance to the forefront of the time, daring us to embrace some of ‘La Vie Boheme’ in our own lives. It also pays tribute to the thousands of lives cut short when the AIDS epidemic was at its worst. In a time where we are facing our own pandemic and suppression of the Bohemian lifestyle, RENT’s relevance has never been more significant since its inception.
Directed by Shaun Rennie, the Sydney Opera House production marks a triumphant return to theatre in our COVID-19 world. While our pandemic differs from the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Rennie ensures the parallels of fear, loss, uncertainty, and disconnection are profound. With Andrew Worboys as Musical Director, the rocking musical score blasts through the Drama Theatre and underscores the emotional integrity of each of RENT’s characters.
Dann Barber’s set design, while minimalistic in its rustic feel, references the setting of 90s New York City, complete with moveable fire escapes and low, intimate lighting designed by Trent Suidgeest. Including some Brechtian elements, with the band situated onstage, the cast encompassing the stage preparing the set pieces, carrying out transitions and visually interacting and reacting to the events on stage, the production embodies a connectedness that underpins the main story of RENT. Although at times the uneven levels of the set proved difficult to manoeuvre for some of the cast, with feet being misplaced and lights being knocked off in close quarter numbers.
Based on Puccini’s beloved opera La Bohème, RENT follows the ups and downs of a year in the life of a group of impoverished, artistic friends living in Manhattan’s East Village. Mark (Mat Verevis), an aspiring filmmaker, struggles to find his place in the world; his roommate, Roger (Robert Tripolino), an HIV-positive musician, wonders how he will leave his mark before he dies. With the help of their friend, Collins (Callum Francis), they struggle to repay their landlord, ex-friend Benny (Tim Omaji). Mimi (Mia Morrissey) and Angel (Seann Miley Moore) look for true love as they face the harsh reality of life as HIV-positive young people, while the businesslike Joanne (Elenoa Rokobaro) seeks fidelity from her wild-child performance artist girlfriend, Maureen (Monique Sallé). The group’s dreams, losses, and love stories weave through the musical’s narration to paint a raw and emotional portrait of the gritty bohemian world of New York City under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.
Supporting the main characters is an outstanding ensemble including Henry Brett, Jarrod Draper, Kieran McGrath, Marissa Saroca, Stacey Thomsett and Angelina Thomson, all of whom receive their own chance to shine in the production. Whether it’s Brett and Saroca belting out the solos in Seasons of Love, or Draper’s portrayal of multiple characters including the homeless carollers or HIV/AIDS support group, they prove that RENT is more than just its main characters. Rennie’s production rests on the pure ensemble elements of the show and it’s clear throughout that the cast have worked intimately to bring to life each of their own roles and characters that bring Larson’s story relevance and power.
While there are multiple stories of love throughout, it is the story of Francis’s and Moore’s Collins and Angel that holds the most power and emotional resonance. Their story, from blossoming romance to Angel’s ultimate health decline and eventual death, was a strong centre for the production. Moore was a standout throughout, bringing relevance and integrity to Angel as a shining light that touched all those around them. Rennie’s use of inclusive pronouns was a particularly purposeful addition to help in modernising RENT 25 years on.
Morrissey and Tripolino as Mimi and Roger played beautifully off each other and their harmonies worked well to support the anguish of Larson’s score. While Rokobaro and Sallé as Joanne and Maureen brought a standoff vocal battle to their on again/off again relationship, with Rokabaro belting out some hefty Tina Turner-level vocal abilities and Sallé chewing up and spitting out Maureen’s protest monologue with comedic anger.
As an operetta, it’s easy for some songs to go under the radar or simply add to the story without standing out. ‘Living in America’, for example, did not quite hit the rebellious weight it should have, whereas the standout song ‘Seasons of Love’ had the most unique introduction envisioned in any recent production of RENT seen. The inclusion of Morrissey singing the lyrics in Spanish, the a capella introduction of voices and instruments (including some impressive whistling from Henry Brett), the dance off style interpretation of the lyrics which gave Omaji a chance to show off his unique choreography, all of it led to a near standing ovation from the audience.
If the response from the full house (at COVID capacity) is anything to go by, this production of RENT proved to be the musical we perhaps all need right now. In a year when art was suppressed and the world quite literally stopped, the message of creation and overcoming disease and adversity proves that Larson’s masterpiece still holds resonance today and, here, it is presented through some of Australia’s newest emerging talent.
Photo credit: Prudence Upton
RENT will play in the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 31 January 2021. For more information, click here.