Just over ten years ago, Jonathan Larson’s Rent stormed Broadway as the best new rock musical since Hair and it’s still running there. An updated version of Puccini’s La boheme, and set in the East Village in New York around Christmas time, it captured perfectly the feverish excitement of artistic endeavour in a time of the AIDS plague.
Whereas Hair expressed its youthful enthusiasm and disaffection as a howl of protest against the war in Vietnam, Rent stays closer to home, moaning about the cost of living in a property boom and trying to make it in the Big Apple; but the musicals are essentially similar in spirit, and both have really remarkable scores, as well as dual heroes – Rent’s Roger (Luke Evans) is a Kurt Cobain-style songwriter, Mark (Oliver Thornton) a wired and eager wannabe filmmaker – in a tribal community.
The emblematic artist in the Rent in-crowd is Mimi Marquez, a junkie stripper whose tiny hand may be frozen when the snow begins to fall but whose act is hot when she lights her candle for Roger. The original New York production had a sensational Mimi in Daphne Rubin-Vega and Krysten Cummings was pretty good in London premiere, too.
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. The founding member of the Sugababes indie group sings and moves pleasantly enough, but there’s no real depth to her voice, and no tigress in her tank top.
“There’s only now, there’s only here, give in to love, or live in fear,” goes the line in the final, rousing anthem. The poignancy of Rent stemmed from the tragedy of its author’s unexpected death, of an aortic aneurism, on the night before the first Off-Broadway preview in January 1996, ten days before his 36th birthday.
William Baker’s production eradicates the realism of the urban setting in favour of antiseptic white MTV chic. Baker and his musical supervisor Steve Anderson are “the celebrated creative team behind Kylie” – pop star Kylie Minogue, that is, who graced the first night with her glittering tiny presence – 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”.