Rent Remixed - Kylie Minogue creative director William Baker’s 21st-century makeover of Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical - opened at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre last night (15 October 2007, previews from 2 October) in front of a star-studded audience including Minogue, Rupert Everett, Will Young, Duncan James and Claire Sweeney (See Also Today’s 1st Night Photos). The production is currently booking to 5 April 2008.
Inspired by Puccini's La bohème, Larson's musical transposed the plot to early 1990s New York where a community of East End squatters battle to fulfil their aspirations against the reality of rent demands and AIDS. The death of the 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.
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).
Baker’s new production is designed by Mark Bailey, with musical supervision by
fellow Kylie collaborator Steve Anderson. The cast is headlined by Denise Van Outen (pictured) as Maureen and former Sugababe Siobhan Donaghy as Mimi, joined by Luke Evans (as Roger), Oliver Thornton (Mark) and Jay Webb (Angel).
Overnight critics deemed Baker’s new version more “reduced” than “remixed”, and by and large “strangely disappointing” - though some felt the failure was partly due to the exposure of weaknesses in Larson’s original material. One of the biggest complaints related to Bailey’s “Manhattan chic” design that bore no relation to the poverty the characters refer to. As for the cast, while there were nods to the “cute” Luke Evans, the “adorable” Jay Webb and the “hilarious” Denise Van Outen and appreciation for the “strong” singing, critics found the acting inadequate and unable to cover up what was essentially “a flawed product stylishly repackaged”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (one star) - “There are many disappointments in this ‘remixed’ version of the show, and the first is the underpowered Mimi of Siobhan Donaghy, who has seriously misunderstood the role. Mimi is supposed to die at the end, not in the first scene … William Baker and his musical supervisor Steve Anderson are ‘the celebrated creative team behind Kylie’ … and, with designer Mark Bailey, they create a perspex and neon-lit limbo that feels like a hospital ward. So the fatalism of the piece is not conveyed in any of the performances, but on a moving newsreel on the back wall litanising famous AIDS victims such as Ian Charleson, Rock Hudson, Kenny Everett and so predictably on. Leon Lopez is the stricken black hobo and Jay Webb his divine young drag queen Angel. But they are cheap negatives of their characters and everyone’s upstaged anyway by Denise Van Outen as the hilarious lesbian performance artist Maureen, who comes on like a storm in black leathers and transparent leotard. She’s nothing to do with the show, but jolly good value. Ironically, given the production attitude, you come away thinking that Larson’s talent has been not so much ‘remixed’ as ‘detoxed’.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (one star) – “They call this ‘Rent Remixed’. I'd dub it ‘Rent Reduced’, in that the late Jonathan Larson's reworking of La bohème, while never a great musical, has been turned into a grisly, synthetic, pseudo pop concert with no particular roots or identity … The plot and numbers have been retained in this new version but everything else has been senselessly jettisoned. The characters in Baker's updated version now inhabit a white-walled, perspex-screened, skeletal-doored world that shrieks Manhattan chic: if this is raffish bohemian poverty, I wouldn't mind some of it. The songs, re-ochestrated for a four-piece orchestra, also never seem to stem from a precise social context, but become a series of discrete numbers … So what is one left with? Not much. Denise Van Outen, as the character who leads the protest against the eviction-process, struts her stuff like a parody Madonna, but I felt she was a nice girl trying to be raunchy. Siobhan Donaghy as Mimi also sings pleasantly and reveals a nifty pair of pins. Luke Evans and Oliver Thornton do what they can with the under-characterised Roger and Mark, and Jay Webb as the boyish drag-queen flounces appropriately. But the show is not so much a carbon-copy of the original as a reductive re-hash of a show that caught something of the flavour of Nineties New York.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “This deeply unwelcome revival of the lachrymose American musical is modishly billed as Rent Remixed. ‘Rent Drastically Reduced’ would be nearer the mark … There are just four musicians in the pit, and a supporting ensemble of only seven … There isn’t a glimpse of the poverty of which the characters, in their neatly pressed clothes and expensive leather S&M gear, so frequently complain … This clinical, cynical, underpowered revival makes its shortcomings all too apparent. The characterisation is feeble, there is no momentum in the plot in which characters, many of them suffering from AIDS, drug addiction and in Mimi’s case both, meet, fall in love and die, and the lyrics are relentlessly trite … The things this show has going for it are gloopy love ballads and anthems of youthful solidarity that are likely to appeal to self-pitying adolescents. But while the singing is strong, most of the acting is abysmal. There isn’t a spark of eroticism between Luke Evans’ perpetually dour Roger and Siobhan Donaghy’s wan, size-zero Mimi … Denise Van Outen gives one of the most embarrassing turns I’ve ever seen as Maureen, bedecked in basque and fishnet tights and constantly thrusting her boobs, bum and crotch at the audience … Unfortunately it goes on, and on and on, offering cruel and unusual punishment to anyone burdened with a brain.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Rent, Jonathan Larson's ground-breaking, AIDS-related musical … is now given a strangely disappointing makeover or remix by director William Baker … Designer Mark Bailey places the musical in a far too stylish, steel and aluminium environment, with white-washed walls and elegant, laddered stairs. This is the world of hyper-expensive Manhattan. It is also up these stairs that Jay Webb's gay Angel, freshly attached to Leon Lopez's sturdy Collins, climbs after dying, as if a Manhattan loft preposterously led straight to paradise. In comparable tone, when Miss Donaghy's delicate Mimi, an HIV heroin addict, comes down from her apartment to Luke Evans' handsome but wooden Roger in search of a light for her candle, you are struck by how well-to-do they seem. Larson wanted nothing like this … Baker's rent-resisting bohemians are not so much drop-outs as chic society people, observed by Oliver Thornton's bland narrator … Both Miss Donaghy and the cute Evans are vocally impressive, but the anger and intensity that earlier actors brought to these roles goes missing. At least Baker improves upon Larson's original in which the swooning, dying Mimi miraculously recovers consciousness … Enjoy Rent Remixed for its exquisite songs, not its vacuous story.”
Sam Marlowe in The Times (three stars) – “The songs, apart from a few numbers — notably ‘Seasons of Love’ and ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ — are forgettable … If Larson intended to present a gritty slice of street life, there’s no new evidence of that here. Baker may have toned down the eyes-and-teeth showbiz bravura, but inhabitants of this Alphabet City are hardly slumming it, on a white multi-levelled set by Mark Bailey … Still, Anderson has done a cracking job of funking up Larson’s score, replacing overweening guitar rock with pumping gay club anthems and diva pop, flavoured with rippling keyboards and electronica … Oliver Thornton and Luke Evans bring intensity and a latent homoeroticism to the friendship of the narrator Mark and his roommate Roger. Yet the only touching relationship is that of Leon Lopez’s brawny Collins and Jay Webb’s adorable and emotionally tough Angel, who succumbs to AIDS, in the form of a throng of S&M vampires, in camp, affecting style … Overall, this is a flawed product stylishly repackaged. Whether it spawns a new generation of ‘Renthead’ fans remains to be seen. But I suspect Larson wouldn’t have been displeased with the makeover.”
Simon Edge in the Daily Express (two stars) – “The show's fans are presumably too excited to notice that, dramatically, it's absolute dreck. To say the plot is hard to follow is over-generous, because there isn't one … There are some decent tunes but no real characters, only ciphers, and there is hardly any dialogue because everything is sung … This version is directed by Kylie Minogue's stylist William Baker, who has his own underwear label but is short on theatrical experience … Baker has assembled a strong cast including the former Sugababe Siobhan Donaghy as a skeletal Mimi, Oliver Thornton as a token HIV-negative film-maker, Jay Webb as a flaming gay skinhead and a confident Denise Van Outen as a brassy lesbian vamp. The actors - many with refreshingly English accents - are the redeeming feature of the production. But Mark Bailey's ice-cool set makes no sense for a group of junkies and down-and-outs, and the use of an LED indicator board to run the list of showbiz Aids deaths is as crass as Van Outen bawling at the audience: ‘Are you having f***ing fun or what?’ It was an effort not to shout back: ‘What.’ … But in real life the main update is that Aids is no longer an automatic killer, which means there is less excuse than ever for this humourless wallow-fest.”
- by Tom Atkins