Having caught the musical theatre bug anew after her reality TV judging on Any Dream Will Do in the UK and You’re the One That I Want in the US, Denise Van Outen (pictured) will return to the stage herself. However, rather than taking on the Narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or goody-two-shoes Sandy in Grease, Van Outen will play edgy bisexual Maureen in Rent, which opens on 16 October 2007 (previews from 2 October) at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre (See News, 3 Aug 2007).

Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is being given a a 21st-century “remixed” makeover by Kylie Minogue’s former creative director William Baker. The cast also features former Sugababe Siobhan Donaghy (as Mimi), making her West End debut, and Leon Lopez (from TV’s Brookside, Hollyoaks) as Collins.

Formerly best known as the presenter of such television programmes as The Big Breakfast and Something for the Weekend, Van Outen wowed critics when she returned to the stage in April 2001 to play murderess Roxie Hart in the West End production of Kander and Ebb musical Chicago, later reprising the role in her Broadway debut.

She was last seen on the West End stage in 2003 in a reworked version of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black’s one-woman song cycle Tell Me on a Sunday. Earlier in her career, Van Outen’s stage credits included A Slice of Saturday Night, Les Miserables, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Stop the World.

Rent received its West End premiere at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 12 May 1998 and closed on 30 October 1999 after a run of 18 months. It has since toured the UK extensively and had two limited West End return seasons, the last in 2005/6 when supermodel Caprice starred (See News, 18 Nov 2002).

Inspired by Puccini's La Bohême, Larson's original musical updated the plot to early 1990s New York where a community of East End squatters battled to fulfil their aspirations against the reality of rent demands and AIDS. The death of 35-year-old creator and composer from an aortic aneurysm shortly after the final dress rehearsal of Rent's debut transformed the musical into a cause celebre in New York, where it’s still running.

Baker’s version has been pruned down to a running time of just over two hours, with electric guitar riffs and some Americanisms removed, and references to HIV therapies updated. The minimalist white “void” set will be enhanced with chrome fire escapes and a digital landscape. The British actors will speak in their native accents.

Baker admits that his team runs “the risk of alienating Rent fans”, though he hopes they’ll be surprised rather than “appalled”. “When Rent was first produced, Jonathan tragically died at the point when it would have been tightened up. We’ve edited it a lot, taken it down to its core, down to core relationships and issues. We’ve preserved the basic melodies, but the arrangements are completely different, ranging from burlesque to hard core grunge to pop … I think we’ve been true to Jonathan’s original intentions, the story and the music he wrote.”

Also in the cast are: Luke Evans (Taboo, Miss Saigon) as Roger, Oliver Thornton (The Phantom of the Opera, Les Mis) as Mark and Whatsonstage.com Award nominee Jay Webb (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) as Angel, as well as Francesca Jackson (Joanne), Craig Stein (Benny), Ruth Augilera, Jamie Sampson, Antony Luperi, Earl Perkins, Lewis Griffiths and Philippa Stefani.

Fellow Kylie Minogue collaborator Steve Anderson acts as music supervisor. Rent is designed by Mark Bailey, with lighting by David Howe and sound by Sebastian Frost. It’s produced by the Ambassador Theatre Group, Tulbart Productions and Michael Brenner. Currently at the Duke of York’s, Anna Mackmin’s revival of David Storey’s In Celebration, in which Orlando Bloom has made his stage debut, finishes its limited season on 15 September 2007.

- by Terri Paddock