The central credo of Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical “Rent” — “No day but today” — echoes around this new, updated version like an indictment. Helmer William Baker reveals his roots in contemporary club culture (he’s best known as Kylie Minogue’s creative director) by approaching the source material as ripe for remixing, but Larson’s earnest, romanticized portrait of the effect of AIDS on the downtown New York arts scene cannot help but bring its time period with it. The result is an unstylish muddle that seems unlikely to provide “Rent”with the hit London run that has so far eluded it.
The production’s oddities begin with the dubious emphasis in press materials on the original’s “grunge” vibe: The reason why Larson’s music makes sense in the musical theater milieu is that it comprises show tunes in rock and pop drag.
Through much of the first act, the sound from Steve Hill’s four-person band is quite close to the original, with minor innovations of song reordering: Show begins with “Seasons of Love,” usually the act two opener; and “Tango Maureen” has been shifted to the end of the first act, heightening anticipation for the star entrance of Denise van Outen as sexpot performance artist Maureen Johnson. While bringing act one down immediately after van Outen’s appearance is funny, it leads to an overlong second act, which has to trawl through “Over the Moon” and “La Vie Boheme” before launching into the act’s other 11 songs.
A TV presenter-turned-musical theater personality (she did a turn as Roxie in “Chicago” in the West End and Broadway in 2001-02 and more recently appeared in NBC’s reality casting series for the Broadway “Grease” revival), van Outen looks fabulous in Mark Bailey’s black bustier-fishnets-leather jacket ensemble. She uses her strong belting voice and trademark vulgar-girl-next-door patter to good effect in her central comic performance piece. Van Outen is, however, in her mid-30s, and one assumes that the rest of the ensemble has been cast so that her age does not stand out.
As in the film version, this strategy fatally undermines the material’s credibility: The idealism of these struggling-artist characters only makes sense if they are in their 20s or younger.
Oliver Thornton is likeable as Mark, and Luke Evans has the big voice necessary for Roger’s songs, but both are simply too pumped-up gorgeous to make sense as impoverished East Village squatters. Leon Lopez as a soulful Collins and Francesca Jackson as Maureen’s feisty lover Joanne are strongest among the leads in voice and characterization. More than half the characters speak in their natural English accents, the just-about-credible explanation being that they are New York-based expats.
Siobhan Donaghy, a former member of pop group Sugababes, alone looks age-appropriate as Mimi, but she’s otherwise unsuited to the role, her awkward stage movement failing to make sense of the character’s seductive felinity.
Though Mimi is still described as an S&M dancer, her big number, “Out Tonight,” has been reconceived as an old-style burlesque turn; the improbabilities and infelicities starting to mount, her backup singers emerge from the AIDS support group meeting going on behind her.
Original musical was fueled by outrage and despair about AIDS that feels inherently connected to its time period. Attempts here to update references (having Mimi say “cocktail hour” when her beeper goes off; an LED ticker listing names of real-life figures who died from the disease running above the action) dilute the material’s power.
In Baker’s milieu, rapid cultural recycling is the norm, so whether Angel’s pencil-thin white jeans and red suspenders are disco-retro or of the moment is probably an irrelevant question. Eliding time periods here, however, confuses matters by removing the material’s specificity.
What clangs most loudly in this version is the characters’ defense of anticapitalist bohemianism, which has here been commodified into an attempt at trendy style. This is the first modification of Larson’s musical that has been allowed by his estate. Hopefully, its flaws will persuade his executors that it’s too soon for this material to be revamped.