Review: RENT: THE MUSICAL at Playhouse, QPAC

RENT's limited Brisbane engagement will continue through February 4! This production exceeds the five-star rating and is an absolute must see. 

By: Jan. 30, 2024
Review: RENT: THE MUSICAL at Playhouse, QPAC
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RENT tells the story of struggling artists, the horrors of addiction and the importance of relationships. In LPD Productions' rendition of this timeless classic the heart and soul is at the forefront. This production exceeds the five-star rating and is an absolute must see. 

Review: RENT: THE MUSICAL at Playhouse, QPAC

Based on Puccini’s beloved opera La BohèmeRENT follows the ups and downs of a year in the life of a group of impoverished, artistic friends living in Manhattan’s East Village (Alphabet City). Mark, an aspiring filmmaker, struggles to find his place in the world; his roommate Roger, an HIV-positive musician, wonders how he will leave his mark before he dies. Mimi and Angel look for true love as they face the harsh reality of life as HIV-positive young people, while the businesslike Joanne seeks fidelity from her wild-child performance artist girlfriend Maureen. The group’s dreams, losses, and love stories weave through the musical’s narration to paint a stunningly raw and emotional portrait of the gritty bohemian world of New York City in the late 1980s, under the horrific shadow of HIV/AIDS.

Under the expert direction of Shaun Rennie this production was in great hands. Rennie's journey with RENT began years ago, directing the 25th-anniversary production in the Sydney Opera House. Additionally, Rennie has had their hand in directing the source material for RENT, the opera La Bohème. So, to say Rennie understands the musical would be a gross understatement. Rennie is an extremely talented artist and this is evident though this production. Their clear work with each actor created heartfelt characters that everyone could relate to, the intimacy and chemistry is hard to ignore, and Rennie developed each character's relationship arc impeccably through the production. The blocking through the entire production was natural, Rennie created an atmosphere where the audience is a part of the show rather than an outsider looking in. Additionally, Rennie utilised a multitude of Epic Theatre/Brechtian techniques throughout this work which helped to elevate this story event further, such as signage/posters and seeing the ‘actors’ which is a perfect style for the musical.

Review: RENT: THE MUSICAL at Playhouse, QPAC

Musical Direction by Andrew Worboys was flawless, every vocal number in this fully sung rock opera was whipped into shape by Worboys. The epic power ballads, full ensemble numbers and rock songs were all impeccably created, and it is clear Worboys has trained the actors to produce a clear, crystal, and charming sound. Additionally, the musical band was on fire the entire evening, not missing a single beat which really proved the high level of theatre we were witnessing. Choreography by Luca Dinardo was simple yet extremely effective. The use of basic dance movements (and sign language!) was subtle yet so evocative that the emotion was still coming through. You never think that the simplest of movements can create such a resounding scene, however Dinardo clearly made their mark on this production. 

Set by Dann Barber was grungy in the best way possible, utilising a 3-piece multilayered platform for most of the action Barber had a difficult job to fill the rest of the set however they did this beautifully. Scaffolding adorned the edges of the stage with cords stringing up Christmas lights, radios and old TVs to give the stage that old school steam punk aesthetic. Costumes by Ella Butler really added to the grungy style, most characters wearing simple contemporary costumes. However, two most notable pieces stood out to this reviewer, the first being 'Santa' the happy man who dishes out drugs to those addicted, the suit was reminiscent of the jolly man however it had been dirtied and torn making it almost an evil Santa. The second was the market scene with Angel and Collins, Butler created wearable market stalls with bags, ties, jewelry, and coats which was delectable to behold. 

Review: RENT: THE MUSICAL at Playhouse, QPAC

However, the true strength in this production lies with the absolute power houses that are the actors.

The aristocrat Benny is played by the tough Tana Laga'aia, Benny is a character the audience loves to hate, they stand for everything that is wrong in the world, greed, power and standing on the little guy. Laga'aia's portrayal was calculated and impressive, the audience was able to see each layer of this character unravel as the production continued. Some vocal aspects of Laga'aia’s performance were a little off pitch in places throughout the production however this can be put down to the nerves of opening night (and this being Laga'aia’s debut touring production after graduating LAST YEAR!).

The always happy and loving Angel is played by the incomparable Carl De Villa, De Villa is a star in their own right releasing pop, soul and RnB songs on Spotify to impressive reception. However, they really use their skill in this production. De Villa is an incomparable vocalist and (spoiler alert! but really is it….?) during Angel's death their riffs and emotional recall is heart breaking. Not a dry eye in the house and you could hear a pin drop, it was a collective awe. Additionally, their acting skills are impressive, especially during Without You, swapping between being brave at the AIDs clinic in front of Collins and Mark, and the horrific pain of AIDs. It was both heartbreaking and impressive.

The philosophy professor, Collins, is played by Nick Afoa. Afoa is a talented performer and they shone in this role. Everyone fell in love with Afoa right from the start, their chemistry with De Villa was unmatched which made it all the more gut-wrenching during Angel's death. Afoa has a long list of performance credits, and it’s clear in this production why they keep getting roles!

Review: RENT: THE MUSICAL at Playhouse, QPAC

The performance artist Maureen is played by Calista Nelmes, it is impossible to talk about Maureen without mentioning Over the Moon. This reviewer was sceptical at how they were going to present this piece after seeing many versions, however LPD and Nelmes version is probably the best this reviewer has seen. Nelmes is a fantastic vocalist and their rendition of this 'performance' was just insane, their vocals, riffs and runs were unmatched. Nelmes portrayal of Maureen was impressive to say the least, Nelmes IS Maureen there is no doubt!

Playing opposite Nelmes is Thndo as the hard-hitting lawyer Joanne. Thndo matched Nelmes in vocals and it was often hard to separate both Nelmes and Thndo as they are both such powerhouses, their rendition of Take Me or Leave Me was sexy, sultry and superb! Thndo's characterisation of Joanne was fantastic, their hard-hitting attitude and sass was rivaled and loved by the audience throughout the entire production.

Review: RENT: THE MUSICAL at Playhouse, QPAC

Rock band front man Roger was played by Jerrod Smith. Roger is not an easy character to play, especially vocally. The character has some of the highest rock tenor ballads and songs in the musical and Smith definitely rose to the challenge. With these songs it is important to ensure all the notes are supported and not strained however towards the end of the production it could be seen (to a trained listener) that Smith was struggling a little. However, this is no means a criticism, the small vocal cracks and strained sound did really add to the emotional height of the musical especially at the end with Mimi's death, so it could be attributed to Smith's beautiful character and emotional recall. Smith created a character that took the audience on a journey from start to finish, they were routing for his life and relationships. Smith is an incredible performer and Roger is a perfect character for them!

Review: RENT: THE MUSICAL at Playhouse, QPAC

Playing opposite Smith was Martha Berhane as the sexy dancer Mimi. Without a doubt, Berhane was the vocal highlight of this production. Words cannot describe Berhane's portrayal of Mimi as it was just that perfect. Berhane's rendition of Out Tonight was just insane! They brought the house down with this number, both providing impressive vocals whilst crawling on the floor, which is no easy feat! Acting wise, Berhane was jaw-dropping, the arc of happy drug user and dancer to addict on deaths door was gut-wrenching, and again not a dry eye in the house at the end of the production when Mimi almost dies.

Review: RENT: THE MUSICAL at Playhouse, QPAC

The aspiring videographer, Mark is played by Noah Mullins. Mark is one of the hardest characters in musical theatre, not only does the character rarely leave the stage but they sing in almost every number. Mullins was Mark, this is a case of perfect casting to the point of not being able to see anyone but them being able to play the role. Mullins is another with a large performance credit and it is clear why. Mullins is faultless, every single note, mannerism, movement, or dance move was calculated and purposeful making Mullins the star (literally!) of this show. Mullins is exactly what you want out of a lead performer.

Review: RENT: THE MUSICAL at Playhouse, QPAC

It was clear on opening night that the cast were not just performing in this production, they were having fun. With Rennie's stellar direction you could see most performers throughout the entire production, and everyone was smiling and supporting one another when not in character. There has been much discourse over the years on the appropriateness of this musical and if it has a place in the modern century, however this production proves just how integral this musical is to modern day. Its portrayal of LGBT+ relationships, unapologetically, is exactly what the world needs right now. It is the exact definition of marginalized group representation whilst also reminding us of the past struggles that these people faced to become where we are today.

Review: RENT: THE MUSICAL at Playhouse, QPAC

It is impossible to sum up LPD's production of RENT in one word. Faultless. Flawless. Amazing. Perfect. This is exactly what RENT should be, unapologetic and incredible. Every aspect of this production has been carefully curated by the creative team and brought to life by the cast. This is a MUST SEE!

RENT is playing at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre until February 11 before heading to Melbourne, Newcastle, Perth, and Canberra. If you have the opportunity to only see one performance this year, make it RENT. As you know there is No Day But Today!

Photography: Pia Johnson Photography




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