Jonathan Larson’s iconic musical Rent is 25 years old this year and this 1990s period-piece is suddenly feeling sharply contemporary again. Forced evictions, gentrification, art vs. commerce, love and drugs – all told against the backdrop of a community managing a pandemic…welcome to 2021.
Kicking off this anniversary year, a new production has settled into the Sydney Opera House with a cast of young, powerhouse voices including Robert Tripolino (aka “Otter Jesus”), Seann Miley Moore (familiar to some from UK’s X-Factor), Mia Morrissey, Mat Verevis, Tim Omaji and the show’s standout pair, Monique Sallé and Elenoa Rokobaro as Maureen and Joanne.
Rent has proven itself incredibly resilient over the years. Surviving Fox’s accident-stricken Rent: Live, London’s bold but misguided Rent Remixed and Chris Columbus’s anaemic film adaptation (which isn’t as bad as you remember it being), but nothing beats hearing Jonathan Larson’s score on stage, belted out by a full ensemble, in its original form, reminding you just how good it is.
And this cast can really sing! The tunes all sound fantastic. Sallé and Rokobaro’s rendition of Take Me or Leave Me blew the house down. The ensemble brings real vitality to the smaller roles, making the most of every moment.
Today it would be a harder sell to have a cis-gendered straight man writing a show with so many LGBTQ+ characters, but nothing in Rent rings false. In fact, in a contemporary context some of the old critiques have fallen away. Now that we live in a media landscape with broader representation we aren’t overloading these characters with too many expectations. Joanne and Maureen aren’t treated as archetypes for all lesbians, they are just a lesbian couple, with all their own personal foibles. Seann Miley Moore’s Angel comes across as more genderfluid than previous productions – the debate about whether the character of Angel is a gay man in drag or a trans woman remains open to interpretation.
Director Shaun Rennie’s vision of Rent steps away from some of the original production’s iconic imagery. Mark has shed his traditional ‘Where’s Wally/Waldo’ stripes, in favour of an unbuttoned shirt – more Lower East Side Lothario than Uptight Jewish Media Nerd – which makes for one very good visual gag during La Vie Boheme as the ensemble momentarily present a tableau of DaVinci’s Last Supper.
Not all the choices work for the show; the general lack of cold-weather clothing makes it look more like a mild Australian winter than a bitter New York one, Collins’ mugging is a literal blink-and-you’ll-miss-it event and the decision to put Mimi in a comfortable pair of harem pants makes her boast about having the “best ass below 14th street” hard to prove.
But none of these small points dent the brilliance of the show. The tunes are great and this cast do them justice. Rent is an undeniable classic that revolutionised musical theatre (and spawned hundreds of bad rock musicals). I can’t help wondering whether Hamilton will age this well? Ask me again in twenty years.
Rent plays at the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre until January 31st 2021. Tickets available online at the Sydney Opera House website.