In America, so a song lyric goes in “Rent,” “you are whatyou own,” and of its London premiere at the Shaftesbury Theater, one thing is clear: Its four transplanted Americans own the show. That’s in no way meant to discredit the fiery, gorgeously sung and danced spitfire of a Mimi in Krysten Cummings, an American with dual Anglo-American citizenship who previously played the role in Toronto. But to enter a London theater and find Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Jesse L. Martin and the wildly, unstoppably vital Wilson Jermaine Heredia is to encounter a direct link to the self-evident and aching heart of the late Jonathan Larson, the show’s creator, that goes back well over two years.
It’s easy to fault a show that is clearly unfinished — who knows what the final structure and shape of this likably ramshackle piece might have been had the prodigiously gifted Larson not died just before its premiere? But whatever the (sometimes severe) problems of “Rent,” cynicism and calculation are absolutely not among them, and one couldn’t ask for better ambassadors of the show’s abiding passion and innocence than its quartet of American men, all of whom seem fired up anew by the change of scene.
For those who saw the original company on (or off) Broadway, this London “Rent” marks a reunion of a highly emotional sort, at least until the fall, when the Americans depart. The excitement starts from the first appearance of Rapp’s bespectacled Mark, our guide through a “La Boheme” update whose revision of Puccini’s ending prompted at least one audibly derisive snort on the press night. (Those Americans, you could imagine naysayers thinking as the AIDS-afflicted Mimi sat upright, must they put a happy ending on everything?) And it continues right through Pascal’s fierce delivery of “One Song Glory,” sung as if his character’s life depended on it — which, in the case of the HIV-positive, onetime junkie Roger, it really does.
As for Heredia, reprising his Tony-winning role as the doomed transvestite Angel, this amazing performer seems both to exist within his own whirligig of an orbit — his energy makes the rest of a spirited cast look becalmed — and to be attuned perfectly to the demands of an ensemble. Though the performance could , over time, easily have become a coyly knowing turn; it looks even fresher than it did in New York, and one only wonders what someone of such gifts will possibly do for an encore.
Playing Tom Collins, Angel’s computer genius boyfriend, Jesse L. Martin impresses with a sincerity that never once becomes stolid: His reprise of the wrenching “I’ll Cover You” emerges tearfully from someplace within.
Whether this level of feeling will be shared by an audience coming cold to both show and company is, of course, the (literally) million-dollar question, especially in a city more likely to associate protest theater with the likes of Howard Brenton and David Edgar and musicals about the dispossessed with “Oliver!” (As for Bohemia, isn’t that a place in “The Winter’s Tale”?) The references, too, may be a stretch — a line about “Newt’s lesbian sister” got no response, nor, oddly, did an Alec Baldwin joke. Though Larson’s buoyant score , its range embracing everything from salsa to Sondheim, comes through strongly in Dave Adams’ five-piece onstage band, there’s still no denying the absence of real characters, actual drama — the second-act face-offs flare up in a void — or even a coherent plot. But “Show Boat” has just as messy and shapeless a second act, and it keeps rolling along, so perhaps there’s no reason “Rent” shouldn’t rock on just the same.
Among the British supporting cast, the clear standout is Jacqui Dubois’ gutsy Joanne, who deserves special praise for surviving Jessica Tezier’s leather-clad, blond Maureen, the show’s lone casting lulu. (Tezier’s “Over the Moon,” complete with audience mooing, is painful to watch.) Rachel McFarlane lends an impressive set of lungs to “Seasons of Love” while suggesting herself as a Joanne-in-the-making, and the choral work is distinguished throughout. And if there’s something special when one of the American holdovers takes to the stage, that’s as it must be, inasmuch as they remain the vibrant emissaries of a lost talent whose seemingly boundless compassion continues to be the theater’s gain.