Rent Review – A Parody of Earnestness in Australian Musical Theatre

Read our review of the earnest Australian production of Rent, a musical that falls short of its potential and feels more like a parody. Explore the shortcomings of this production and its impact on the reputation of the musical.

Rent Review – Earnest Australian Production Doesn’t Save the Musical from Feeling Like Parody

Rent, the iconic musical by Jonathan Larson, has garnered a reputation for its emotional resonance and cultural impact. However, a recent Australian production at the Arts Centre in Melbourne fails to save the musical from feeling like a parody. In this review, we’ll delve into the production’s shortcomings and explore how it falls short of its potential.

The Tragic Legacy of Rent

Jonathan Larson, the composer and lyricist of Rent, tragically passed away on the eve of the musical’s off-Broadway opening. This untimely death has become intertwined with the show’s legacy, adding a layer of emotional weight. However, it’s important to separate the tragedy from the quality of the work itself. While Rent may hold sentimental value for many, it doesn’t quite live up to its acclaim.

The Awkward Execution
Rent is essentially a reimagining of Puccini’s La Bohème, transplanting the story to 1990s Manhattan. Larson’s enthusiasm is evident in his attempt to tackle pressing social issues such as homelessness, drug addiction, and the AIDS crisis. However, the execution falls short. The stories of the characters feel underdeveloped, and their actions often lack psychological coherence. It’s as if Larson was more focused on fulfilling his dramatic ambitions than creating believable characters.

Lurching Plot and Musical Missteps

The plot of Rent, much like the songs themselves, stumbles and falters. Just as one idea gains momentum, Larson abruptly shifts gears, leaving the audience disoriented. The narrative starts with the promise of a community-driven renovation project but devolves into predictable love triangles and a saccharine death scene. While musical theatre can embrace sentimentality, Rent’s earnestness often borders on self-parody.

Problematic Themes and Marginalized Characters

One of the more troubling aspects of Rent is Larson’s treatment of tragedy, marginalization, and victimhood. Despite several characters living with HIV, it is only the black trans character, Angel, who meets a tragic end. This portrayal can be seen as a problematic and clichéd sacrifice. Additionally, Larson’s tendency to appropriate the suffering of others for his own storytelling purposes is concerning. These themes are raised but never fully explored or critiqued, leaving a sense of missed opportunities.

Noah Mullins and the cast of Rent performing on stage in Melbourne
Noah Mullins and the cast of Rent performing on stage in Melbourne

A Production Struggling to Find Its Footing

The Australian production of Rent at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, directed by Shaun Rennie, showcases enthusiasm but lacks refinement. Performances are often unsubtle, and some characterizations feel hammy and awkward. While the costumes and set design capture the gritty atmosphere of the Lower East Side, only the lighting design manages to evoke the rebellious spirit of pre-gentrified Manhattan.

Uneven Performances and Missed Opportunities

The cast of Rent delivers mixed performances. Jerrod Smith brings a powerful rock-infused energy to the character of Roger, while Noah Mullins initially shines as the narrator but loses impact as the show progresses. Nick Afoa impresses as the philosopher Collins, creating a genuine connection with Carl de Villa’s vibrant portrayal of Angel. However, the rest of the cast feels uneven and fails to make a lasting impact.

Rent’s Place in Musical Theatre

Rent undoubtedly holds a significant place in the musical theatre canon, influenced by works like Hair and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock musicals. It paved the way for a decade of musicals that followed, both excellent and mediocre. While die-hard fans may still embrace the show’s cheesiness, in the context of 2024, Rent’s saccharine portrayal of bohemian life and its handling of the AIDS crisis feel shallow and glib. This production does little to redeem the musical’s reputation or ignite a sense of what could have been.


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