It’s a tribute to Jonathan Larson’s genius that his quirky offbeat rock musical about a bunch of New York outsiders is the eleventh highest grossing Broadway show of all time and this is a pretty faithful recreation.
The claim that it’s a reworking of Puccini’s opera La Bohème has always seemed to be a bit overblown, but it remains a powerful ode to artists as outsiders based on Larson’s own experiences when he was struggling to get work made.
The narrative and dizzying array of musical styles is held together by aspiring director Mark making a gonzo documentary about his friends living in and around a New York squat, many of whom have AIDS when that for many was still a death sentence. Paul Lonsdale’s Mark is a touch on the mature side, but he sings and acts well.
Rent continues to be popular with audiences as it explores the idea of what community is, no matter how messed up it might appear from the outside, but it also has the right number of killer showstoppers to qualify as a musical theatre classic.
When failed rock singer and Mark’s roommate Roger launches into One Song Glory it sets the standard early on, and his duet with junkie club dancer Mimi on Light My Candle is exquisite. Jonny Landels’ powerful vocals and physicality makes Mark believable as a wannabe rock star, and the impressive Nikki Hosker offers just the right level of vulnerability to the duplicitous Mimi, resulting in another powerful duet in act two’s Without You, which is another Larson banger.
As well as celebrating community, Larson was keen to celebrate the gay community that surrounded his squat. Liam Gordan brings genuine pathos to big hearted crossdresser Angel, working well with Mikey May’s smart, but troubled, Collins. Their joyous version of I’ll Cover You sparked a big round of applause.
At heart this is an ensemble piece, and Nathan Winn has assembled a youngish cast with plenty of training and experience behind them. They all nail their numbers that are sensitively played by the onstage rock band, even if some of the acting and accents are of variable quality, and when they assemble top open the second act with Seasons of Love, which is the song most associated with this show, their heartfelt harmonies are suitably spine-tingling.
Sadly, Larson died just before the show’s premiere, and watching it again you can’t help but feel he might have trimmed the show a little more as there’s still a bit too much of terrible performance artist Maureen. It can also feel like a period piece as our understanding of HIV has dramatically changed since the eighties, but the paranoia and fear caused by a relatively new virus does seem to resonate for our times.
There have been attempts recently to rethink this show in a more intimate way, but this show offers a faithful recreation of the set and the book that doesn’t take that route. But it offers the strong ensemble a showcase for their talents, and a tribute to a lost talent who did leave a show that will endure down the ages because it’s so much about what makes humans complex.
30th March – 2nd April
Hull Truck Theatre, Hull
14th – 16th April
Joseph Rowntree, York
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 11th March 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★