Wednesday, June 12, 2024





Book ,music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Original concept by Billy Aronson.  Directed by Shaun Rennie Musical director Andrew Worboys. Choreographer Luca Dinardo.  Musical arrangments Steve Skinner. Music supervision and additional arrangements Tim Weil. Dramaturg Lynn Thomson. Set design Dann Barber. Lighting design Paul Jackson. Costume design Ella Butler. Sound design Evan Drill. Producers Lauren Peters and Toby Francis Canberra Theatre. June 11-15 2024. Bookings: 62752700 or

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins


The Australian cast of Jonathan Larson'sRENT

Every performance of Rent the Musical serves as a moving eulogy to its late composer Jonathan Larsons. Although inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s tragic opera La Bohéme, Larson’s work is firmly set in Manhattan’s East Village in New York City. The title holds a double meaning. It refers to the eviction of the community who cannot afford the rise in the rent, a cruel act by a greedy landlord who by his actions threatens to rent the poor community asunder. Larson has created a gospel for his tribe, struggling artists battling their circumstances in an effort to survive. It would be a heartless audience that could not feel the love, suffer the pain, dream the hope and demonstrate empathy towards Larson’s characters. Larson also broaches the devastating impact of HIV-AIDS that rent apart the fabric of the queer community.

Composer Jonathan Larson
 Like La Bohéme, Larson’s characters are artists striving for success and clinging to their community for support. Mark (Noah Mullins) is a documentary film maker, documenting the trials and tribulations of the inhabitants of Bohemian Alphabet City. His neighbour, Roger (Jerrod Smith) is desperately attempting to write a new song after being diagnosed with HIV Aids and battling depression. He meets Mimi (Martha Berhane), an exotic dancer with HIV Aids, who comes  to him when the power is switched off (Light My Candle). Angel (Chad Rosette) is a Drag Queen in a  relationship with university professor Collins (Nick Afoa). Maureen (Calista Nelmes) is a performer in a relationship with her director, lesbian lawyer Joanne(Thndo). Roger’s former flatmate Benny (Tana Laga’aia has cast aside his ideals to embrace capitalist ambitions, become the landlord, increase the rent and plan to replace the buildings with a cyber studio. It is the catalyst for protest by the occupants of Alphabet City.


Although set in the  1980’s and early 1990’s Australia’s touring production is powerfully resonant with a new generation, struggling with the cost of living and a rental crisis, while emerging from a pandemic and confronting discrimination and disadvantage. The result is a rock opera that speaks as much to our time as it did to its audiences at its first performance in 1996. Director Shaun Rennie and Musical Director Andrew Worboys have created a production that is seeringly visceral, at times heart-wrenching when Mimi sings her eulogy to Angel (Halloween)  and at other times heartwarming as the full company celebrates community and love with Seasons of Love.  Over the course of a year from Christmas (Christmas Bells Are ringing) through Happy New Year as a time of hope, Fall, Spring, Winter and finally a reprise of Christmas Bells Are Ringing, the residents  find their voice in defiance and community (La Vie Bohéme).

Thndo as Joanne. Calista Nelmes as Maureen in RENT
On the Canberra Theatre stage the pulsating energy and visual spectacle of Rennie’s production are galvanizing. Dann Barber’s set design keep the action moving with scaffolding on a revolve, and structures that move in and out. A large curtain reveals and conceals and a backdrop depicts the East Village building. Paul Jackson’s outstanding lighting design includes a bank of lights providing back lighting that casts shadows across a scrim behind which the company depict a silhouetted scene of sexual abandonment.  Rennie has skilfully directed each moment of the performance.including Calista Nelme’s remarkable performance of Maureen’s Over The Moon, Angel’s dying scene and ascent to Heaven in reference to Angels in America and the company’s rendition of La Vie Bohéme. There is the youthful explosion of energy in La Vie Bohéme and the tender, moving rendition of Your Eyes as Roger cradles the weak Mimi and sings the song he has finally been able to compose. Rennie’s cast is superb . Unfortunately lyrics were often lost in the mixing of sound levels between singers and band. As a result in the first half many of the lyrics were difficult to understand which is no fault of the cast and hopefully will be fixed so that audiences can follow the story more clearly. This was largely remedied in the second half of the show.

Martha Berhane as Mimi. Jerrod Smith as Roger
In 1999 I took students to the London production of Rent. They were blown away by the production and last night a group of young people from Canberra Youth Theatre joined in a standing ovation at the end of the show. It is not only a testament to Jonathan Larson’s connection with a new generation a quarter of a century later but to this production’s fabulous heart, soul and talent. Despite the characters’ anguish, struggle and the protestation Lauren Peters and Toby Francis’s production of Rent leaves us with a belief in the power to survive  and  hope for No Day But Today and  all the Seasons of Love. 


CAST:  Principals; Nick Afoa, Martha Berhane, Chad Rosette. Tana Laga’aia, Noah Mullins, Cal;ista Nelmes, Jerrod Smith, Thndo.

ENSEMBLE: Anna Francesca Armenia, Billie Palin,Scout Hook, Josslyn Hlenti, Lawrence Hawkins, Hannah McInerny, Sam Richardson. Theodore Williams, Mariah Gonzalez, Sam Harmon

Band: Keyboard 1/MD Andrew Worboys., Keyboard 1/ Associate MD Dylan Pollard, Bass Konrad Ball, Guitar Nicholas Drescher, Keyboard 2/Guitar 2 Tina Harris, Drums Cypress Bartlett

Photos by Pia Johnson