3.5 Stars.

Jonothan Larson’s RENT is one of the most loved musicals of this generation. The story is based on Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, won a swag of awards and tells the story of a group of bohemians living in the Alphabet City in the early 90’s as they deal with love, loss, disease, ambition and life. I think most TP readers will know it, and I’m not going to outline the story or background too much. If you don’t know much about it, head to Wikipedia here.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rent_(musical)

I’d have to say I’m a self-confessed ‘RENT-HEAD’, a term that applies to people who love this musical. I’ve seen many local productions of the show across Victoria, saw the off-Broadway 2011 revival, listened to the soundtrack countless times and have even performed in it myself. It’s a show that defined a new era in musical theatre and to date remains one of the top 10 longest-running Broadway productions of all time, as well as being one of my personal favourites.

You know as an audience member that you’re in good hands with the production team at the helm of Next Step Productions’ (NSP) RENT. Director Paul Watson’s extensive knowledge of the show provides the basis for a well staged production. Visually it is exciting to watch. He weaves the characters on and off the stage like a fine tapestry, and the intricate story is well understood and presented. He brings all the elements of the stage together to tell his story and convey the different seasons, locations and moments in time. It is cold and bare at times and fills with warmth at others. He even features the Chapel’s signature led lighting into scenes where appropriate, which is a great incorporation of the space.

Andrew Leach rocks out as the Musical Director. He brings new and interesting nuances to the original rock score and his band is one of the true highlights of this production. Choreography by Leigh Barker supported the story without distracting from it and is understated and clever. Kerry Kennedy’s costume design is well suited to the period and indicative of class and season. The set design, by Watson, is made up of scaffolding and framework with multiple platforms and levels, which help create many different locations to support his storytelling.

The lighting by Brad Alcock is stunning. The lights dance to the music, they sweep the audience, they light up the stage like a rock concert and they create small intimate moments. Sound by Conrad Hendricks doesn’t miss a beat and is nicely balanced throughout. The only time this isn’t the case is during ‘Christmas Bells’, however I don’t think I’ve ever heard this amplified live with the full scope of the score; 2011 off-Broadway revival included.

In the program it states the cast are ‘hand selected’ by Watson and Barker, who is also Producer, to help give “up and coming performers” the “leg up [in the industry] that they deserve”. It’s a bold approach.

Cameron McDonald as Mark Cohen gives an appropriately detached performance. He reminds of a younger Neil Patrick-Harris. His vocals are confident and he brings a measured presence to the narrating role. Steve Simmons portrays a sensitive Roger Davis. As a man struggling with his demons, he is withdrawn from his friends but still exudes warmth and is compelling to the audience. His husky vocal chords work beautifully with the score.

Melanie Ott plays Mimi Marquez. Ott is a powerful performer and she sings the role with vigour, totally committing to the performance. At times she is a little too aggressive, and you want to see a softer, vulnerable side emerge. I’d also argue that she looks too mature to play the 19 year-old role and doesn’t quite fit the bill of a starving drug addict from the Spanish Harlem.

Barker is also cast as drag-queen Angel. His is a joy-filled and assured performance. As HIV takes hold and he degenerates, you are reeled into his story. Vocally, he has an impressive range that extends through the score. As Tom Collins, Shaun Kingma brings sensitivity and calm to the role. His classically inclined voice doesn’t sit comfortably in the pop-rock infused score except in moments where his lower baritone range has a chance to resonate. The Angel-Collins relationship is placed at the heart of the piece. We see them meet, fall in love and develop a relationship that extends through and impacts on their friends. Unfortunately, there was little chemistry between the two and this took away from the emotional journey one goes on when watching RENT.

As Joanne Jefferson, Zuleika Khan packs a punch and effortlessly transitions from voice of reason to feisty diva with attitude. Her vocals are impressive and she is one of the absolute gems of this production. As Maureen Johnson, Gemma Purdey is a dynamite force to be reckoned with. She has a sex appeal, which she exploits and doesn’t hold back. Her ‘Over the Moon’ is triumphant and throughout the show she truly captures the spirit of the bohemian artist. Her voice is smooth and quirky and everything about her indicates she is creative. The volatile relationship between the lesbian lovers is passionate and the peak of their journey at ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ is hands down, the best number in the show.

As Benjamin ‘Benny’ Coffin III, Ashley Roussetty sings with a smooth and easy voice. It is a smaller role, but I felt he was often lost in the piece. Had he been less jovial, it would have helped define him as an opposing force to his bohemian friends.

The ensemble work hard and their energy is high. Special mentions go to Brittany Lewis as Mark’s Mother for the combination of her trill and matriarchal delivery, Brenton Cosier’s effortless ‘Seasons of Love’ solo, Andrew Doyle for his endearing Homeless Man in ‘Christmas Bells’ and Nadia Gianninotti for her crazy Bag Lady and spot-on delivery of Mimi’s Mother.

This season of RENT offers high-calibre production values and is an edgy and rocking night out at the theatre. It is definitely a production not to be missed! It will continue at Chapel Off Chapel until the 18th January.