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'Rent' Remixed at the Duke of York's


When Jonathon Larson conceived his ground-breaking musical Rent, he set out to create a serious piece of musical theatre with a rock score. So director William Baker and musical supervisor Steve Anderson's decision to "remix" what has become a revered rock cult classic musical might appear to some to be an ill-conceived travesty. Or is it, others might argue, anymore of a travesty than was Larson's original idea to re-work Puccini's operatic masterpiece La Boheme as a rock musical? So perhaps it was more brave and daring than foolhardy to try to bring something new to Larson's piece, to create an altogether new theatrical experience rather than re-hash the Broadway and previous West End productions. Unfortunately, despite some quite lavish new orchestrations and some great vocal performances, it does not totally work.

Rent, which first began its development by composer/lyricist Jonathon Larson and playwright Billy Aaronson back in 1989, looks at a microcosm of characters - straight, gay, transgender - from New York street society, all struggling to get by and many living with the reality of HIV/AIDS. The musical, which won a Pulitzer prize for Drama as well as Tony Awards for Best Score, Best Book and Best Musical, is a tale of heartbreak and tragedy but also an uplifting examination of a world where people must live for the moment - "No day but today."

In trying to weave together the story of a number of diverse characters, Larson's libretto has always been somewhat disjointed and confused with many of the characters loosely defined - and the production at the Duke of York's does not do anything to solve these problems. In addition, some of the songs in this production are too softly textured to achieve the emotional impact they require. Yet, still the strength of the material shines through right from the first few moments as the wonderful ensemble cast chant the haunting lines "Will I Lose My Dignity?" before bursting into the glorious "Seasons Of Love". For at the core of the production is Jonathon Larson's brilliant score - including "One Song Glory", "Another Day", "Santa Fe", "I'll Cover You", "Without You" and "Goodbye Love" - all now sounding in some ways more lush and melodious than ever.

The performances are generally excellent - apart from a miscast Siobhan Donaghy, who fails to do justice to her songs and lacks the sense of desperation and pathos to make a convincing Mimi. Denise Van Outen fares much better as Maureen - sexy, powerful and larger than life. But Francesca Jackson steals the thunder amongst the female cast. Oozing with sophistication and class as the accomplished attorney, Joanne (Maureen's lover), she delivers her lyrics with dexterity and punch and at times her vocals are astonishing.

Amongst the men, Leon Lopez gives a sympathetic portrayal as down and out gay academic, Tom Collins, aided by his effective, husky vocals. Oliver Thornton perhaps lacks the cynicism needed to give erstwhile film-maker, Mark, the credibility the character needs - but his voice resonates beautifully through the theatre and he certainly serves members of the audience (both male and female judging by the nature of the show) with a large portion of eye-candy. The HIV positive songwriter, Roger, who lights Mimi's candle in both metaphor and reality, is played by Luke Evans with an immense presence that allows him to move effortlessly back and forth from fragility to anger, from despair to hope. And when he sings he is nothing short of outstanding.

Many diehard "Rent-heads" will no doubt find the whole experience unsatisfying, even distasteful. And it is true that this production is far from perfect - but the original Broadway version is far from perfect. If one approaches this production with an open mind, despite its flaws Rent Remixed is a very enjoyable evening. All true lovers of the art of musical theatre should go to see the show with no pre-conceived hang-ups. After all, as the definitive lines from Larson's lyrics state: "Forget regret or life is yours to miss."

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