Rent review – earnest Australian production doesn’t save the musical from feeling like parody

<span>Noah Mullins and the cast of Rent, which is on in Melbourne until 10 March, before touring to Newcastle, Perth and Canberra.</span><span>Photograph: Pia Johnson</span>
Noah Mullins and the cast of Rent, which is on in Melbourne until 10 March, before touring to Newcastle, Perth and Canberra.Photograph: Pia Johnson

They say you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead but there’s no rule against criticising their work. The US composer and lyricist Jonathan Larson famously died of an aortic dissection the day before his musical Rent opened off-Broadway, and somehow the tragedy of his sudden death folded itself into the show’s reputation.

Had he survived, two things might have happened: the musical may not have had such emotional resonance; and Larson’s talent might have eventually found a stronger vehicle for its realisation. Because, as much as people love it, Rent is actually pretty awful.

That’s not to say it doesn’t thrum with potential. In an alternate reality, you could imagine Larson honing and strengthening his lyrical and compositional skills, embracing dramatic nuance and refining his melodic instincts. The two musicals he left behind – this and Tick, Tick … Boom!, which has had an Australian revival starring Hugh Sheridan – point the way, but they don’t of themselves represent a major body of work. Larson seems haunted forever by a future that never materialised.

Rent is a fairly unsophisticated reframing of Puccini’s La Bohème, artlessly transposing the opera’s 1830s Parisian bohemians to the lower Manhattan of the mid-90s. Larson chucks everything at it with undergraduate enthusiasm but little sense of precision. Thus we get a jumble of underdeveloped stories revolving around hot-button issues including homelessness, drug addiction and the Aids crisis. Characters often seem like mere ciphers, their actions servicing Larson’s dramatic whims but rarely making psychological sense.

Mark (Noah Mullins) lives with his friend Roger (Jerrod Smith) in a dilapidated hovel in the Lower East Side district of New York known as Alphabet City. They begrudgingly endure power outages, freezing living conditions and, as something they probably should have seen coming, demands to pay last year’s rent. They decide, in the title song, that they’ll simply refuse to pay, and organise a protest movement against landlords, cops and gentrification itself. Australia’s cities, enduring rental crises of their own, should take note.

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The plot – like many of the songs themselves – has a tendency to lurch and splutter; just as one idea gets going, Larson drops it and takes up another. For a while it seems as though the story will follow those community-fixes-up-a-building trajectories favoured by 80s US cinema – for which Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo is the undisputed pinnacle. This morphs into tedious will they/won’t they love triangles and eventually into a death scene so schmaltzy it wouldn’t look out of place in a Hallmark Christmas movie. Musical theatre can get away with being daggy and manipulative but Rent’s earnestness often feels like a parody of the form. No wonder it was sent up so mercilessly in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police.

More disturbing is Larson’s relationship with tragedy, marginalisation and victimhood. Despite many of the characters in Rent suffering from HIV, it is only the black trans character Angel (played with vibrancy and charm by Carl de Villa) who dies – a kind of eulogised sacrificial lamb. One small but telling scene has a homeless woman castigating Mark for filming her; it’s a remonstration against Larson’s tendency to appropriate human suffering for his own self-aggrandisement. But it goes nowhere and is never mentioned again. It reads less like self-admonishment and more like a Freudian slip.

The show’s director, Shaun Rennie, leans into its anarchic energies in a production full of eagerness but little refinement. Performances are unsubtle and many of the marginal characterisations are hammy and awkward. Ella Butler’s costumes are suitably grimy and downbeat, and Dann Barber’s industrial set works well enough, but only Paul Jackson’s vivid lighting design evokes the sense of defiance and danger that animated pre-gentrified lower Manhattan.

Smith brings a powerhouse rock inflection to the miserable Roger and Mullins starts well as the show’s narrator and audience surrogate, even if the role loses its potency in the second act. Nick Afoa is excellent as the lover and philosopher Collins, commanding the stage and creating a genuinely sexy connection with De Villa’s Angel. Martha Berhane throws her whole self into the role of Mimi, although the book asks her to do some stupid things for love. But the other key cast are uneven and largely ineffectual.

Rent has a place in the musical theatre canon. Informed by social milieu works like Hair – its list song La Vie Bohème is particularly indebted – it also evokes the rock musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, namely Jesus Christ Superstar. For better or worse, it influenced a whole decade of musicals that followed, from excellent stuff like Next to Normal to excrement like American Idiot. Rabid fans will happily ingest it, cheese and all. But in 2024 Larson’s saccharine view of bohemian life, and his inclination to appropriate and minimise the suffering of a generation wiped out by Aids, feels glib. This production does nothing to restore the work’s reputation, even as it leaves us wondering what might have been.