Musical review: RENT: The Musical, QPAC

This latest iteration of Jonathan Larson's hit show will captivate a new generation of music theatre lovers.
RENT: The Musical. Image is a diagonal shot of a line-up on stage of young men and women looking off to the left and singing.

How do we metabolise RENT: The Musical almost 30 years after its Broadway debut? The post-modern, queer, anarchist rock opera revolutionised the boundaries of popular musicals. The latest Australian production, staged by LPD Productions and touring nationally across 2024, delivers on the show’s infectious youthful exuberance. 

An enthusiastic crowd on Brisbane’s opening night gave the cast a lengthy and heartfelt standing ovation. The production hums with electricity throughout, from the grotesque to the sublime. Not all performances are consistent or refined, but they will likely only grow in confidence throughout the season. 

RENT:The Musical in 2024

If this is your first time around, RENT is loosely based on the Puccini Opera La Boheme. In New York’s East Village in 1991, a group of artists face eviction from their run-down apartment building. They battle AIDS, drug addiction and homelessness, along with all of the drama of young love. 

The piece is written by Johnahan Larson, who tragically died at the age of 35, just a day before the first Off-Broadway performance of Rent. He was posthumously awarded the Pulizter Prize and several Tony Awards for his work on the musical. RENT typically stands beside Tony Kushner’s Angels in America as work that is essential to the American queer canon dealing with AIDS. 

The show is known for it’s Act Two opener, ‘Seasons of Love’, but the show’s approach to music is eclectic, featuring tango, rock and pop. Larson was not afraid of the surreal, and the show lacks any kind of formulaic structuring that marked the Disney adaptations and Andrew Llyod Webber musicals of the time. RENT includes a large comic piece about protest performance art, orgy scenes adjacent to death scenes and character arcs that are occasionally rushed or forgotten. 

Regardless, it’s stood the test of time, proving particularly useful as a staging ground for new generations of musical theatre talent (everyone in the cast is typically in their 20s) and is an important and emotional piece for many.  

Watching RENT in 2024 lacks the true political punch that writer Jonathan Larson would’ve originally intended. There is a large cognitive dissonance in watching the show with a middle-class, privileged audience in a large, government-funded theatre. RENT is so specifically about New York and the 90s that the show can become an intellectual museum piece or an act of nostalgia. This is a shame, because of course the essential issues of class (have you tried renting in an Aussie capital city lately?) is still incredibly poignant. 

Watching the show in 2024 also reminds of us how conservative we’ve become. Larson’s bold experimentation with form queers the very idea of musical theatre. Next to it, HamiltonDear Evan Hansen and Come from Away are positively tame and heteronormative. What shows nowadays are going to brave enough to include a ten minute performance art piece about cows in the middle of their first act? 

RENT; The Musical playing in Australia

The latest 2024 production is a success. Dann Barber’s set contains platforms contort and spin to bring the New York streets to life. Paul Jackson’s lighting design constantly breaks the fourth wall and invites the audience to become an engaged rock crowd. Ella Butler’s costumes capture the colours and layers of 90s fashion – which helpfully wouldn’t look out of place for any urban youth today. Luca Dinardo’s choreography is a joy to watch.

The vocal talent across the board is spell-binding. The show gives plenty of opportunities for the young cast to play vocal gymnastics and they do so with spell-binding ferocity. 

On the show’s first evening, not all of the cast found the nuance in their characters, missing gags or specificities that would’ve allowed for greater depth. Shaun Rennie’s direction is competent and emphasises the show’s operatic nature, occasionally at the cost of the character’s grounded humanity.

Calista Nelmes’ Maureen is fearless, electrifying, and the complete embodiment of the chaotic, courageous, life-affirming lesbian that is RENT‘s plum role. Her late entrance in the first act lifts everyone into a new energy. Her complete surrender to Maureen’s performance art is a piece of comic mastery that is the most enjoyable part of the entire show. Nelmes is worth the ticket price alone. 

Photo: Pia Johnson

Carl De Villa’s Angel is appropriately tender and tragic. De Villa’s performance strikes as effortless, but bears all the marks of a master musical theatre performer, balancing comedy, stunning vocals and captivating stage presence. They find a very capable romantic partner in Nick Afoa’s Collins. 

Martha Berhane’s Mimi, a role that demands vulnerability and dauntless choreography, faithfully takes on the role of rock goddess for ‘Out Tonigh’t. Calista Nelmes and Thndo’s rendition of ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ is another highlight. ‘What You Own’ comes late in the piece but provides an excellent showcase for Jerrod Smith and Noah Mullins.

Read: Performance review: Viva Korea, Riverside Theatres

This production of RENT will be a success in 2024, especially for a new generation of musical lovers who can appreciate the show’s originality and message of love. 


Books, Music and Lyrics: Johnathan Larson
Director: Shaun Rennie
Musical Director: Andrew Worboys
Choreographer: Luca Dinardo
Cast: Noah Mullins, Jerrod Smith, Martha Berhane, Calista Nelmes, Thndo, Nick Afoa, Carl De Villa, Tana Laga’aia, Anna Francesca Armenia, Kelsi Boyden, Mariah Gonzalez, Sam Harmon, Lawrence Hawkins, Josslynn Hlenti (Joanne Alternate), Hannah McInerney, Sam Richardson, Chad Rosete and Theodore Williams

Tickets: $56-$169

RENT will be performed at QPAC until 11 February 2024 before touring to Melbourne from 17 February, Newcastle from 15 March, Perth from 11 May and Canberra from 7 June.

David Burton is a writer from Meanjin, Brisbane. David also works as a playwright, director and author. He is the playwright of over 30 professionally produced plays. He holds a Doctorate in the Creative Industries.