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The late Jonathan Larson’s rock(ish) update of La Bohème, set among the loft-dwellers of contemporary New York City, has been a Broadway fixture since it opened there in 1996, but has hitherto (twice) been unable to duplicate its success in the West End. Now the creative team behind the recent pop successes of Kylie Minogue have turned their collective hand to a “remixed” version that all but buries it beneath a deluge of bland teen pap.
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. Nor does he forget those vocal harmonies that are almost artificially perfect but manage to avoid delineating a tune. Ashley Wallen’s choreography artfully suggests movement and energy without plotting anything complex or original. 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 performer (she even starts working the audience), although Francesca Jackson as her lover Joanne stands up well in comparison. Ex-Sugababe Siobhan Donaghy, in contrast, is a cipher as Mimi; during her supposedly raunchy dance number, you can see her thinking: “Now, this is where I do this…”
Homogenising a show is one thing, but Rent has a special status for many because it was the first musical to deal successfully with characters living, and dying, with Aids. Here, we hardly notice. The death of Jay Webb as Angel takes place upstage behind a love duet, and he very tastefully climbs a ladder to heaven. Mimi 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.