Twenty years after Rent first premiered off Broadway, it is still considered a theatrical phenomenon. The original production won four Tony Awards, spent 12 years on Broadway and the musical won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1990, but there's something more to its significance. Following a group of impoverished artists living in 1990s New York, Jonathan Larson's rock musical captures a particular cultural moment – the height of the artistic scene that had bubbled in the East Village since the Beatniks moved in, and the spectre of HIV looming over the creative hubbub. Director Bruce Guthrie, then, reprising the show in its 20th anniversary year, at a time when HIV's fearful grip has lessened for many, and in a theatre far from the East Village, is one brave theatremaker.
Thankfully, Larson's creation is still as heart-wrenching and life-affirming as ever, and it blossoms beautifully in Guthrie's hands. Or rather in the hands of his cast. For it must be said that, with actors this talented, it would be hard for Guthrie to go too far wrong.
The fifteen actors form a powerhouse of triple threats, and that includes the ensemble, who play each character with wit and commitment, and whose vocal solos were so impressive last night they won cheers mid-song.
The singing from the leads, meanwhile, is both faultless and encompasses a thrilling range of styles. There's the melting baritone of Ryan O'Gorman as Collins, a rock rasp from Ross Hunter as Roger, and smooth R 'n' B tones from Layton Williams as drag artist Angel – perfect for Larson's genre-blending score. A mention must also go to the raging break-up duet "Take me or Leave Me", shared by Lucie Jones and Shanay Holmes as lovers Maureen and Joanne. Both have such breathtaking voices that the song becomes a diva sing-off of epic proportions. My only musical complaints were some lulls in energy and unimaginative direction during the slower numbers, and a few instances of the band drowning out the cast.
The cast's dancing is as tight as you like – no mean feat given Lee Proud's diverse and deeply expressive choreography, which portrays everything from desperate poverty to wild sexual abandon. But there is one cast member whose dancing steals the show: Willams, who makes his entrance as Angel high-kicking, back-flipping and leaping into the splits. All in towering heels.
But of course, musical numbers are nothing without a strong story, well told. And here we see Guthrie's touch. Rather than bringing the work's context closer to here and now, Guthrie's vision aligns resolutely with Larson's. Anna Fleischle's set is a grimy tangle of rusty scaffolding and neon lights, which transform from New York street corners to grim apartments, to vibrant cafes.
Guthrie's work with the actors is also impressive, creating moments so powerful I felt the audience holding their breath, and relationships so real their endings left many spectators sniffing.
He is, of course, working with undeniably talented actors, and there are too many excellent performances to list here. Notably strong though are Williams, who oozes can't-take-your-eyes-off-him charisma; Jones, who displays an impeccable knack for comedy as flighty performance artist Maureen; and O'Gorman, whose grief later in the show is etched so painfully onto his crumpled face that one fears his broken heart might give in at any moment.
Larson passed away the day before Rent's opening night but, if he were still around to see this revival, I dare say he'd be delighted.
Rent runs at the St James Theatre until 29 January and then tours.