Of York's Theatre, London WC2
The late Jonathan Larson's rock(ish) update of La Bohème, set among the
more dubious class of loft-dwellers of contemporary New York's Alphabet
City district, has been a Broadway fixture since it opened there in
1996, but has been unable to duplicate its success on this side of the
pond. Its two previous West End runs have been respectable but
unspectacular. Now the creative team behind the recent pop successes of
Kylie Minogue have turned their collective hand to a "Remixed" version.
This disguises what I consider the show's main problem (that Larson
could not find a lyrical idiom which effectively straddled
music-theatre and rock to match his far more successful score), but it
does so by rendering it unnoticeable beneath a deluge of bland teen pap.
Opened 15 October, 2007
Steve Anderson's musical arrangements flatten out Larson's dynamics
into the same bright piano, synthetic strings and remorselessly cheery
drums that characterise so much of current assembly-line chart pop. Not
forgetting those vocal harmonies that are almost artificially perfect
but somehow manage to avoid delineating an outright tune. Ashley
Wallen's choreography is a matter of suggesting movement and energy
rather than actually plotting anything complex or original: apart from
an adequate tango number, it's all generic shuffling and pose-striking.
And like William Baker's direction, it all seems to take place
line-abreast. This is pop-concert staging: get your stars moving across
the front so the crowd can see them. When Baker tries to use the depth
of the stage, he does so by layering flat two-dimensional compositions
one behind another.
Of the actors, it is saying something when Denise Van Outen as
performance artist Maureen is the most assured theatrical performer
(she even starts working the house and gets a bit of audience
participation going), although Francesca Jackson as her lover Joanne
stands up well in comparison. Ex-Sugababe Siobhan Donaghy, in contrast,
is a cipher as Mimi the exotic dancer and whore; during her supposedly
raunchy dance number, you can see her thinking, "Now, this is where I
do this...". She is one of
several characters (not including Van Outen's) who have become English
migrants, presumably to sidestep all that too-awkward accent work.
Homogenising a show is one thing, but Rent
has a cherished status for many because it was the first musical to
deal successfully with characters living, and dying, with AIDS (an
obvious update from the consumption which plagued the original
characters). Here, we hardly notice when half the principal characters
take their combination of medications after their "cocktail hour" alarm
bleepers go off. The death of Angel (whom Jay Webb makes neither as
flamboyant nor as disarming as he needs to be) takes place upstage
behind a love duet, and he very tastefully climbs a ladder to heaven;
Mark Bailey's set looks like an Islington designer version of the
prison for Bad Girls, a world
away from the grit and squalor which Larson deliberately included. As
for Mimi, whose operatic incarnation gets one of the most famously
poignant expirations in the stage repertoire, here she coughs a couple
of times, faints then revives.
Ah, but to show how Aware he is, Baker twice has a scrolling LED display
above the full width of the stage roll out the names of numerous
artistic AIDS victims from Mercury to Mapplethorpe, Nomi to Nureyev.
This is not paying respect to those who have been snatched away; it is
commandeering the dead for a crass bit of ostentation, and it stinks.
If Kylie's biggest hit had been about this production, it would be
entitled "Can't Get It Off Of My Shoe".
Written for the Financial
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights
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