Lucie Jones, chosen to represent the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest with the song Never Give Up On You, joins other young cast members in a new production celebrating the 20th anniversary of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning musical Rent. The “Hair” of its day, this production is directed by Bruce Guthrie, with energetic choreography by Lee Proud and musical direction by Phil Cornwell.
Rent tells the thrilling story of a group of young artists struggling to survive in New York’s East Village, in the thriving days of bohemian excess at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Facing their problems head on, they make personal self-discoveries and find out what really matters most in life.
Roger is a musical wannabe in love with Mimi, a show-dancing, HIV-positive heroin-addict. Meanwhile his flatmate Mark, an aspiring movie-maker, has been dumped by Maureen for a lesbian partner, Joanna. Tom, a computer-buff, falls for a frisky drag-queen, Angel, who also dies prematurely.
Larson’s musical, inspired by Puccini’s opera La Bohème, was made all the more poignant when Larson died of an aortic aneurysm on 25 January, 1996, the night before the show’s first off-Broadway performance at New York Theatre Workshop.
The action plays out on an impressive scaffold design by Anna Fleischle depicting grungy downtown New York. With a massive cult following in musical theatre circles, Rent features songs that will be familiar if you’re a fan of “EP on Sunday” including Seasons of Love, La Vie Bohème, Without You, I’ll Cover You.
There’s no denying the vocal talent of the young cast involved in bringing passion and vigour to Larson’s score, book and lyrics but at times it seems disjointed and lacking in structure. Some of the vocals are hard to make out, which also adds to the difficulty in following the plot. The first act is long and drawn out, with not a huge amount happening. Thank God for the Seasons of Love start to Act Two to pick up the pieces.
On the plus side, of particular note are Ryan O’Gorman as Tom Collins for his mesmerising operatic voice, Ross Hunter as Roger, and Philippa Stefani’s Mimi, for playing out some impressive drug-crazed dance moves and vocals. Harrison Clark standing in for Layton Williams as Angel also gives a fragile, heartfelt performance.
Rent is a bit like Marmite, I fear – you’ll either love it or hate it. On the press night, I think I was in the minority.