(Not that it should be hard for people to guess what I thought of this. If the review seems as incoherent as the production, it's because I'm only posting the framework of what will be a far longer article for class here.)
The theatre is comprised of many great successes, but an even greater number of failures. Some shows fail from their first performance, yet others succeed in many ways and places, only to fall short in specific locales and times or under certain creative teams. Jonathan Larson’s RENT is one of these shows, and suffers greatly in a newly misconceived production at the Duke of York’s advertised as RENT Remixed. Readers should note that story and character points will be brought up in detail, and are advised to skip to the final paragraph in order to avoid “spoilers.”
As it stands, there are so many problems with William Baker’s production that one is spoiled for choice in areas to pan, but I shall begin with Mr. Baker’s maligned work on the story. Few will disagree that RENT in its original form had book problems, including a fair share of plot holes and the burying of important information in forgettable throwaway lines. However, the overall character through-lines were consistently presented. Not so in Remixed, as songs are moved around, segues are repositioned, dialogue is trimmed, and even the act break is reworked. What’s left is a jumbled mess that destroys the limited narrative of Larson’s original that should (and could) have been fixed during the tumultuous preview period.
Regarding the much-hyped reworked orchestrations, Steve Anderson has come up with a mixed bag of pieces that work and fail, frequently within the same number. There are enough interesting selections here to have compiled a novelty CD of highlights, but the new score lacks cohesion as a whole. While the strong numbers are impressive such as “Contact” which, despite poor staging and hideous costumes provides a terrifying experience in combination with a sequence of fantastic lighting are good, many of the results are mixed. Tone issues are common throughout as the orchestrations, short on rock guitar but heavy on synthesized strings, frequently lack the drive and energy needed to sell the number. Worst off are two numbers known as RENT’s rock anthems. Mr. Anderson changed “What You Own”, a song of self revelation for filmmaker/narrator Mark and songwriter Roger, from a cynical eleven o’clock rouser to a slow, whiny solo for Mark. Similarly, HIV infected dancer Mimi’s powerhouse piece “Out Tonight” is now sung as burlesque, with lots of virtual trumpets but no fire or soul.
In terms of casting, it’s clear that Mr. Baker (unsurprisingly) cared about style and looks over acting or musical capacity, given his background as celebrity stylist for celebrity page favourite Kylie Minogue. Leading this miscast brat pack is Oliver Thornton as Mark. Mr. Thornton plays the role with the cheap antics of someone who has been in the same role for years and jokes around onstage to keep himself entertained rather than the audience. When required to sing, a classically trained opera tenor appears, as if Mr. Thornton is imagining himself across the street at the ENO rather than slumming it here.
Equally miscast is ex-pop star Siobhan Donaghy as Mimi. Ms. Donaghy’s pop experience is helpful when her requirement is strictly to sing towards the audience, but her breath control is distractingly poor, as she gasps for breath after each line in her major songs, and her chemistry with Luke Evans’s borderline abusive Roger is nonexistant. A similar predicament affects TV presenter Denise Van Outen as Maureen, a slutty performance artist and Mark’s Ex. Ms. Van Outen’s singing is passable and she can stir up an audience, but her acting is wooden when interacting with other cast members.
Mark Bailey is also responsible for this production’s sets, a whitewashed set of walls and lit platform with chairs, stairs and a catwalk. It’s even more minimalist than the original designs, and despite looking far too posh (the walls need grime), is perfectly functional for the show with the exception of a large LED board that was broken during the performance I attended.
Overall, RENT Remixed is a failure as a work of musical theatre. It lacks a coherent plot, gives us no emotional attachment to our characters, and poorly represents the score. The only people who should visit this show are diehard RENT fans in need of a fix or the sorts of anoraks who seek out flops and trainwrecks. Unfortunately, the production was capitalized for under £500,000 and only 80% of the budget has been used, meaning that the producers can keep the show open until holiday tourists come, making recoupment a scary yet likely possibility.
Where: Duke of York's
When: Open run, dark on Sundays. Check the booking site for times.
Cost: £15-45 (See note)
Concessions: Students get general admission for £25.
Note: Seats in the circles as well as prime stalls are reserved for £15/25/45. The rest of the stalls are sold as general admission for £30 (going up in a week or two to £35). The RZ strongly recommends checking out Theatre Monkey before you go if you book unreserved.
RZ Unofficial "Worth Paying": £15 to see what the fuss is about, but honestly, you're best off avoiding it.
RZ Other Notes: The recommendation in the review proper should be adhered to. If you dont' fit those categories, this is not the show for you. While theatregoers unfamiliar with the original staging or the film may find merit in this piece, and old fans with an extremely open mind will find bits to enjoy, this production will not convert anybody who hated the Michael Grief edition. The RZ is greatly disappointed in the RENT Remixed creative team for wasting their previews on minor staging quibbles (though many of the minor things WERE fixed to an extent) but failing to do anything with the key issues that were pointed out again and again by attendees.