by Lew Baxter
SINCE the wildly anarchic rock musical ‘Rent’ hit the New York stage with a crash, bang, wallop in 1996 it has turned into a cult of some magnitude and its co-creator and writer Jonathan Larson has become a minor legend, although he sadly died before witnessing its ultimate triumph.
It is regarded by many as a showbiz classic these days and has picked up a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. Over the last twenty years it has been performed worldwide from small theatre schools to large popular venues that are the lifeblood of high gloss time razzmatazz entertainment.
And it was actually staged by LIPA students in the rather bijou surroundings of Liverpool’s Unity Theatre in February this year (2016).
Now a brand new, and extremely exuberant, big stage production is wooing a new generation of fans, as well as wowing those already in thrall to its charms and charisma.
It is most determinedly no small-scale effort. This is a stage musical writ large and loud, as you might expect from Robert Macintosh, the brother of the acclaimed theatrical impresario Cameron Macintosh. He has forged this new work in tandem with Idill Theatricals in a clearly inspired collaboration with the Wales Millennium Centre and Theatr Clwyd in Mold.
It was premiered at Theatr Clwyd at the end of October and through to early November before embarking on a Christmas season in London’s West End, followed by a major UK tour, which will see scorch the boards at Liverpool’s Empire theatre in February 2017.
Certainly the enthusiastic audiences at Theatr Clwyd thought this latest interpretation of Larson’s creative genius a sure fire winner. The sheer exuberance and vigour of the young cast is breathtaking.
It is set in the dingy apartment in New York’s ‘bohemian’ SoHo district where Larson hung out with a motley gaggle of chums who were all embraced by the communal and social furies of the 1980s, in particular the devastating impact of AIDS, a theme that runs through the work.
The storyline has been likened to a modern day ‘La Boheme’ with even one of the characters called Mimi, and it is easy to see the parallels but whereas Puccini’s tale ends up a tragedy we are dealing here with an American mindset, and of course optimism must override misery.
This production is given a star spangled treatment by the first rate rock music fashioned by Phil Cornwell, and the high octane choreography which is under the supervision of the hugely experienced and talented Lee Proud, who worked on the London production of ‘Billy Elliott’ for a number of years, amongst other hit shows.
It is directed with assurance and obvious affection by Bruce Guthrie who is currently also artistic director of the National Youth Theatre of Wales, and the often feral nature of the performances overall send the senses whirling.
Indeed, the fifteen strong cast give it their all with Billy Cullum as Mark Cohen and Ross Hunter as his flat mate Roger Davis as the baseline for the unfolding drama of love and loss amidst the wreckage of lives. As a rock opera it rivals ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ on several levels: not least the eye-catching costumes and the whole dazzling technical support.
The combination of clear commitment to the roles underpinned by the electrifying, driving music from a live band, all encased in an imaginative and very mobile set design, lifts this into the category of a tour de force.