On the eve of its final dress rehearsal, just three weeks before Rent had its world premiere Off-Broadway in February 1996, Jonathan Larson (who wrote the music, lyrics and book) famously died suddenly and tragically of an aortic aneurysm, just 10 days short of his 36th birthday.

Had he lived, he would probably have made some changes to the show as it found its feet on stage, tightening and focusing the book, and giving the characters a bit more back story. But in the shocking wake of his death, no one felt that it was right to mess with what he had written, and as a result the rock musical remains messy, particularly in the fast-paced first act.

The cast of Rent at Sydney Opera HouseThe cast of Rent. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Still, audiences embraced Rent and it quickly gained a cult following, moving to Broadway where it won four Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and then onto the world, including Sydney where a production played at the Theatre Royal in 1998.

Loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème, Rent is set in Manhattan’s East Village where a group of impoverished young artists and outsiders struggle to survive addiction, homelessness, jealousy and disease as gentrification makes rent unaffordable and the AIDS epidemic takes its devastating toll.

Central to the group are Mark (Mat Verevis), a middle-class, would-be filmmaker whose girlfriend Maureen (Monique Sallé) has left him for a lawyer called Joanne (Elenoa Rokobaro), Mark’s roommate Roger (Robert Tripolino), a songwriter with writer’s block whose girlfriend committed suicide after discovering they were HIV positive, and Mimi (Mia Morrissey), a drug-addicted club dancer who is also HIV positive.

There’s also the philosopher Collins (Callum Francis) who falls in love with the caring, gender fluid Angel (Seann Miley Moore), and Benny (Tim Omaji), a former friend of Mark and Roger’s who is now their tough landlord.

Shaun Rennie made his directorial debut when he directed Rent at the Hayes Theatre in 2015. The production sold out before opening and had a return season. Now, on the show’s 25th anniversary, Rennie directs a new production with an all-new cast.

The cast of Rent at Sydney Opera HouseCallum Francis, Monique Sallé, Elenoa Rokobaro, Mia Morrissey, Robert Tripolino, Seann Miley Moore and Mat Verevis. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Produced by Gus Murray and Lauren Peters for the Sydney Opera House, this new version shows how much Rennie has grown as a director in the intervening five years. He directs here with assurance and sensitivity, leading a well performed, powerfully staged, gritty production.

The musical still feels loosely plotted and unfocused in the first act as it hurtles through the interconnecting storylines of the various characters without giving you enough time to really connect with any of them. But it slows down in the second act, giving the characters more room to breathe and express themselves through their songs. What’s more, some of the show’s most memorable and moving numbers are in the second act.

Rennie finds the joy and youthful exuberance in ensemble numbers such as the uplifting Seasons of Love and La Vie Bohème, but he also knows when to let stillness prevail, particularly for the second act ballads, allowing the musical to finally connect emotionally.

Rent was written as a response to the AIDS epidemic. Viewing it now during the COVID-19 pandemic, among a socially distanced audience wearing masks, feels different to seeing it five years ago. The two viruses and their social context are very different, but the themes of fear, loss, death, isolation and the need for community connect afresh. That said, the musical still feels very much of its time.

Rennie directs on a suitably grungy set designed by Dann Barber, who puts a wooden platform with scaffolding and mobile metal staircases onto the open Drama Theatre stage, with the tight, four-piece band, led by Musical Director Andrew Worboys, sitting in the top left corner. A large, luminous moon gleams on the top of a long pole, which can also be moved around.

Ella Butler’s costuming captures the vibe of impoverished but creative bohemians – from a cheeky Christmas tree outfit for Angel to natty checked pants and loafers for Collins to jeans and denim jacket for Roger, as well as a beautiful costume moment when Angel dies – all moodily lit by Trent Suidgeest.

Elenoa Rokobaro and Monique Sallé in Rent at Sydney Opera HouseElenoa Rokobaro and Monique Sallé singing Take Me or Leave Me. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Luca Dinardo’s choreography ranges from sexy rock moves to a tango for Joanne and Mark to moments of sinuous, organic movement from the ensemble, which underscores the emotion of the main characters, while Tim Omaji’s Benny unleashes some breakdancing.

Rennie keeps all the actors on stage, sitting or standing to the side while they wait to join the action, with the ensemble waving posters or lighting candles to echo what’s happening on stage.

Mat Verevis as Mark, who narrates the show, exudes a lovely warmth and sense of humour that anchors the production, while also conveying Mark’s struggle to find his place in the world as he watches much of what’s happening from the safety behind his camera lens. Robert Tripolino and Mia Morrison delve down into the angst and complicated emotion in Roger and Mimi’s troubled relationship and their number Without You is a heartbreaker. Monique Sallé is a dynamo as Maureen, bringing a frisky energy to her protest number, while she and Elenoa Rokobaro raise the roof with their exhilarating, powerhouse performance of Take Me or Leave Me. Callum Francis and Seann Miley Moore are sweetly playful as Collins and Angel, delivering a touching rendition of I’ll Cover You. But the cast each have their moment, with ensemble member Marissa Saroca bringing the house down on opening night with her beautiful vocal line in Seasons of Love and Henry Brett surprising with a strong, pristine whistle.

Rennie matches the full-throttle youthful energy of the disparate first act, but it’s not until the second act when the musical itself draws breath that the production really finds its emotional groove and introduces some humanity and heart.

Rent runs at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 31 January


Supported by the City of Sydney

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