First night: Passion play puts energy to the fore

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The Independent Online
Rent, Shaftesbury Theatre, London

RENT in New York was not so much a musical as a phenomenon: the little show with a big conscience and a bigger heart that waltzed off with every award. A rock rewrite of La Boheme in which tuberculosis has become HIV and Puccini's Paris is traded in for New York's alphabet city (think London's cardboard city), the plot follows the contemporary struggle between a group of gay and straight friends and lovers falling in and out of love.

Over the course of a year they struggle with their emotions and face the dilemma of being artists without money in the age of Aids. Its heart is not so much on its sleeve as tattooed on to its skin. It has been hailed as the saviour of the musical but despite the sincerity and nobility of its concerns, too much of the show is laudable for its attempt rather than its realisation.

This is hardly surprising given that Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, died after the dress rehearsal of the inaugural production. Since then, the piece has acquired hallowed status. Yet despite a huge marketing campaign with everything that producer David Geffen could throw at it, including padding Steve Wonder on to a bonus track, the cast album hasn't done the business. Musically few of the songs stand proud of their dramatic context. That ought to be a tribute to the show's power but the major criticism is that real drama is exactly what it lacked.

The director Michael Greif is so concerned we should feel every last ounce of the characters' hope and pain that he herds his company and spreads them across the front of the stage to exhort us to understand the emotional content. The second half kicks off in just this fashion with the company lining up at the footlights to sing the anthem "Seasons of Love". In many ways it is one of the show's best songs, a tight lyric about measuring out your life built around a lightly swung ballad filled out with flying harmonies. It is also an utterly shameless piece of begging for applause. It suddenly hits you: this is more like a staged concert of a concept album with one too many out-takes from a Sting album.

But, and it's a big but, the passionate commitment of the cast is never in doubt. When the London production was first announced there were mutterings about the unsuitability of English actors for such raw emotionalism. As it turns out the four New Yorkers reprising their roles find themselves mostly in excellent company.

Oddly for a show which has been sold on its rock credentials, with the exception of the excellent "Living in America", several of the most successful songs are far more soft-centred and traditional than adherents would have you believe.

Too often the pumped up guitar sound forces the lyrics to become similarly overblown, which is a particular problem as lyrics are Larson's weakest point. There is also far too much unleavened plot being sung to one another leaving too little space to let an audience in. Instead, you sit back and admire the energy rather than being truly moved.

Krysten Cummings is sensational as Mimi, pawing the stage like a panther, singing the place down and throwing herself at her material as if her life depended on it, which of course it does. If you go determined to succumb to the cast and their all American heart, you'll love it. Yet as soon as the pace begins to flag ( halfway through the first act), you begin to feel the flaws.