Created by Jonathan Larson, who sadly died the night before the show’s Off-Broadway premiere, Rent opened in 1996 and closed in 2008 after a 12-year run, making it the eleventh longest-running Broadway show in history.
Directed by Adam Mitchell, choreographed by Christabel Ellis, and performed alongside a live band directed by Tim How – comprised of two keyboardists, guitar, drums and bass – the WA Academy of Performing Arts’ (WAAPA) sold-out production of this Tony and Laurence Olivier Award-winning rock musical was a powerhouse performance.
A modern spin on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, Larson’s musical follows a group of impoverished, bohemian young artists in East Village in the late 1980s/early 1990s. These neurotic New Yorkers live with, and in fear of contracting, HIV/AIDs battle drug addiction, homophobia and the epidemic, while rocking Doc Martins and a tonne of attitude.
Playing out like a dark, twisted fantasy nativity scene beneath the bows of a Christmas tree – a spider web of fairy lights – the 2nd Year Music Theatre students ran riot across two levels of an industrial warehouse, obsessed with drugs, alcohol, violence, and insanity.
Mark (Tom New) and Roger (David Cuny) are the two roommates at the centre of this drama, as their old roommate and now well-to-do property owner Benny (Bailey Dunnage) wants to evict them and the other poor from their lot (which Benny now owns) so he can build a cyber arts studio. Mark, our Jewish narrator, is an unsuccessful filmmaker trying to find his voice, and Roger is a once-successful rock guitarist and junkie who is now HIV-positive and hoping to write one last meaningful song before he dies. It’s Christmas Eve and their unpaid rent is due, which leads to the musical’s iconic title song.
Centring on three ‘on-again-off-again’ relationships, Roger begins to love again when he meets Mimi (Kelsi Boyden), an equally damaged HIV-positive stripper and heroin addict with the “best ass south of 14th street”. Tom Collins (Cameron Steens), an anarchist professor with AIDS who was also Mark and Roger’s old roommate, falls for Angel (Finn Alexander), a flamboyant transgender woman/drag queen with AIDS and a winning smile. And Mark’s petulant, hyper-sexual ex-girlfriend Maureen (Mackenzie Dunn) has a fiery relationship with Joanne (Lucy Ross), an Ivy League lawyer.
As they each try to navigate love and loss, Roger and Mimi’s relationship is strained by her escalating heroin usage and Roger’s jealousy and suspicion of Benny, Mimi’s ex. Collins has to care for Angel as he dies and Mark fears being the only one left alive when the rest of his friends are dead.
Packed with songs (42 across two acts), this high-energy production is a delightful feast for fans of musicals. Despite the gravity of the content, the stirring, (mainly) feel-good musical numbers gave one an ear-to-ear grin. Larson’s lyrics share the hopes and fears of his characters, and in ‘One Song Glory’, Roger’s terror of losing his dignity when he dies from HIV/AIDS is particularly heart-rending.
This busy, exhausting production about life at the end of the millennium was a winning, powerful choice by WAAPA’s musical theatre team.
Words by Samuel J. Cox
Images by Jon Green Photography
Rent ran at WAAPA’s Roundhouse Theatre this October.