Rent at the St James TheatreCultureTheatre
This latest tour of Jonathan Larson’s Rent is billed not only as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of its initial Broadway tour, but also serves as the production that will close the St James Theatre in its current incarnation before it reopens in February. It goes without saying then that it has had the proverbial kitchen sink thrown at it. As the seminal rock musical that takes Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème as its inspiration and transposes it to New York’s Alphabet City under the spectre of AIDS in the 1980s, it is a show where vibrancy, exuberance and alternative culture are the name of the game.
It is fair to say that this staging does justice to Rent‘s short but distinguished history. On a modest stage that suggests something much more low key than Bruce Guthrie’s eventual production, the cast all give the performances of their lives. Philippa Stefani as junkie Mimi Márquez and Ross Hunter as Roger Davis, her love who is terminally ill with HIV, are true standouts. Stefani gives so much emotion to the role that by the end of the performance she is visibly exhausted, while Hunter has one of those voices that was born to do musical theatre of the highest order. Layton Williams is spectacular as the inimitable Angel and is a joy to watch.
The strongest of the show’s numbers are timeless, with the ensemble pieces as the highlights. La Vie Bohème and Seasons of Love are sincere and spectacularly choreographed, while What You Own seems even more pertinent in the new millennium with the impending prospect of Trump’s America. The battle between the bohemians and their erstwhile friend Benjamin Coffin III (Javar La’Trail Parker), who looks to turn their loft into a state of the art studio, is well done, and it hits at the crux of the question Rent asks: are you kidding yourself trying to live outside the system, and were you even offered the choice in the first place?
Sometimes the piece feels dated and runs away with itself, but for the most part it is right on the money. While the world may have changed, much is still the same, and this new commemorative production of Rent displays the aplomb and fun of the original script and songs that makes the show stand out even in today’s rambunctious musicals scene.
Rent is at the St James Theatre from 8th December 2016 until 28th January 2017, for further information or to book visit here.