Rent

Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Duke of York's
(2007)

Publicity image with Denise Van Outen

This highly enjoyable new version of Rent somehow manages to fuse Puccini with Kylie to great effect.

Jonathan Larson's original version first seen in the mid-1990s recreated La Bohème for the AIDS generation. Tragically, its creator died of a rare genetic disease after attending a dress rehearsal. Unless, like Angel in the play, he was able to observe the show's progress from heaven, he missed the kind of success that it fully deserves and cannot have anticipated, with a Broadway transfer that garnered numerous awards.

Now William Baker, who has made his name for over a decade creating Kylie Minogue's concerts, has remixed Rent to appeal to a new audience that could pack out the relatively small Duke of York's Theatre until further notice. It was certainly full on a glittery opening night that was graced by Kylie herself, as well as Will Young and stars from such bands as Girls Aloud and Westlife.

Baker may have two drawcards in the leading roles but one of the reasons for the pleasure that this almost three hour musical provides is almost perfect casting of all of the main roles, together with an energetic ensemble who perform well on a rather bland whitewashed stage that does, however, soak up David Howe's rock concert lights, creating a series of memorable images.

The narrator of Rent is a Brit called Mark played by Oliver Thornton. He is a would-be film director who lives in a cheap apartment on the Lower East Side in New York and, with his guitarist roommate Luke Evans' Roger, struggles to pay the rent to a former friend who has become their uncompromising landlord.

Starting on Christmas Eve, their journey lasts 525,600 minutes (a number that any visitors to the show will come out humming for days) or more prosaically one year, measured in public holidays. During that time, an awful lot happens, much of it stunningly sad as Puccini's tale of the consumptive Mimi and her bohemian friends finds itself in the age of drugs and AIDS.

Unusually, the night's biggest name, TV presenter, stage and screen star Denise van Outen appears for only ten seconds before the interval. However, in that time, the barely leather-clad blonde will have raised the blood pressure of every male in the audience and presumably, since she is playing a lipstick lesbian, a good proportion of the women as well. The star oozes sex like a latter-day Mae West, especially when chatting up Tracey from the front row.

Her role as Maureen is not that big but Miss van Outen has tremendous stage presence and since she knows how to belt out the blues and seduce an audience will win lots of friends for her performance.

The action though does not really focus on her character, who does at least show that her heart is in the right place as she defends a cardboard city from developers. It tells a series of interlinked love stories, none of which has a happy ending.

Roger falls for his neighbour, the fragile, vulnerable, flame-haired Mimi played by former Sugababe Siobhan Donaghy who, after delivering a sexy cabaret number, sings sweetly and capably acts the part of a teenager torn between a good man and a bad as she succumbs to drug addiction.

Two impressive performers, Leon Lopez as Collins and Jay Webb as Angel, play lovers brought together by AIDS. Lopez has been cast for his beautiful, soulful voice, while Webb's sinuous body creates dance moves that at times seem almost physically impossible.

The third item couples Maureen with Francesca Jackson's Joanne, a young lawyer with a fantastic cleavage that almost outshines her singing and acting abilities, which is not to demean either of those. It is this pairing that perhaps causes Mark the most pain, since the fearsome Maureen has dumped him just before the opening curtain.

In this community in the 1990s, death was a constant companion, which makes Rent one of the darkest musicals that you are likely to see. It is also very uplifting to see the love that their friends feel for Angel, whose disco death symbolises all those great performers who died of AIDS, many of whose names appear behind his deathbed in a silent tribute.

The music features many catchy tunes which will undoubtedly mean that passers-by will hear an awful lot of humming and singing just after the final curtain every night.

It is perhaps caught at its best in duets between all of the main pairings and is characterised by incredible adventure and variety so that in addition to the sub-operatic, we get Miss van Outen singing the blues; Leon Lopez soul; Luke Evans revealing a silky voice delivering perhaps the most common style of music in the show at the gentle end of rock; Oliver Thornton at his very best in the memorable La Vie Bohème; with other music influenced by the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Jimmy Somerville and Madonna.

The choreography from Ashley Wallen is also impressive, seemingly owing an awful lot to the rock concert background of the show's director, designer and lighting supremo.

Some may have questioned the wisdom of remixing Rent but it is hard to believe that this vibrant but moving evening will not be a long-term sell-out.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher