The boundary-pushing musicals of today owe a considerable debt to RENT

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The boundary-pushing musicals of today owe a considerable debt to RENT

RENT The Musical
Words by Bryget Chrisfield

This all-new Australian touring production of RENT – the game-changing, multi-Tony Award-winning rock musical by Jonathan Larson, which is loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème – is jam-packed with star-making performances; just when we think we’ve witnessed the show’s MVP, along comes another jaw-dropping contender.    

As performance artist Maureen, who doesn’t materialise until midway through Act 1, NIDA graduate Calista Nelmes – who you might recognise from Team Jason on The Voice’s 2023 season – makes her Australian musical theatre debut in one of her dream roles. Nelmes is an utterly captivating presence on stage, her vocal runs land effortlessly and she completely embodies the self-centred but also annoyingly gifted Maureen.

Fun fact: Post-show discussion revealed theatregoers with previous RENT experience deemed Nelmes’ performance art scene (Over The Moon) the G.O.A.T. – she even coaxed the audience to moo along, ferchrissakes!

RENT: The Musical

  • State Theatre, The Arts Centre
  • Tues 20 Feb
  • Tickets here

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Breakup anthem Take Me Or Leave Me – Nelmes’ duet with Thndo, who plays Maureen’s girlfriend Joanne – is another standout moment and they pass their chemistry test with flying colours.

Similarly, the ‘connection’ between New Zealand-Samoan singer-actor Nick Afoa (Collins) and his onstage lover Carl De Villa (Angel), translates beyond the footlights.  I’ll Cover You, their duet about consciously coupling, makes our heart hurt and when Afoa later reprises this song following devastating circumstances we definitely need a hug. Afoa pulls focus like a super-strong magnet every single time he graces the stage.

RENT’s action takes place in Manhattan’s East Village (Alphabet City) circa 1991.

The musical, which plays out under the horrific shadow of HIV/AIDS, homes in on a group of bohemians who face eviction from their decrepit apartment building.

Dann Barber’s inspired set design cleverly utilises levels, with cast members constantly rotating and adjusting the movable multilayered scaffolding and platforms – often while singing. Strings of Christmas lights occasionally illuminate to indicate the passing of time.

Dark alley corners, seedy scenes and expressive faces are isolated and illuminated thanks to Paul Jackson’s precise lighting design.

That silhouetted orgy scene, which plays out behind a scrim curtain, would’ve been soooo raunchy when this musical first opened off-Broadway back in 1996 – almost 30 years ago.

Director Shaun Rennie’s realistic blocking and Luca Dinardo’s subtle choreography maximise the potential for characterisation within movement, which is explored to great effect by this talented ensemble.

Costumes-wise, designer Ella Butler goes for angsty-grunge meets velour with a dash of povo-student chic; except for the inspired designs worn to depict market stalls, with individuals sporting creations composed entirely of ties, bags or coats – wow factor through the roof!

Act 2’s powerful opener Seasons Of Love is a well-documented fan favourite, but Will I? – another ensemble piece – is particularly affecting, and memorable, during Act 1 on opening night.

Queer characters getting it on, drag queens, junkies, rough sleepers – the more contemporary, boundary-pushing musicals of today certainly owe a considerable debt to RENT.

We laughed, we cried, some among us even mooed. But, predominantly, we’re reminded that tomorrow’s never promised (see: No Day But Today) and love is all there is.

Did you know? RENT’s creator Jonathan Larson tragically died, aged 35, in the early hours of the actual day this musical opened off-Broadway. He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and three Tony Awards for RENT.

RENT plays at State Theatre, Art Centre Melbourne until 10 March, before touring to Newcastle, Perth and Canberra.