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Review: Rent at Liverpool Empire *****

There’s no lack of ambition from the young performers who take over the Empire’s stage for a few days each summer – whether in the venue's Stage Experience, ballet or musical theatre companies.

That ambition starts with the choice of show, with the theatre’s creative learning team relishing stories which tackle meaty issues.

Following Fame in 2017 and Lin Manuel Miranda’s lesser known musical In the Heights last season, they’ve pushed the envelope even further in 2019 to present Jonathan Larson’s gritty, sung through rock musical Rent.

And that decision completely pays off – not least due to a series of stunning performances from its teenage cast.

Like Mary Poppins, this Rent is practically perfect in every way. A professional standard production that the young performers should be rightly proud of.

Larson based his tale of love and friendship in the face of adversity on Puccini’s La Bohème, with the setting transposed from 19th century Paris to late 1980s/early 90s East Village New York, where the deathly shadow hanging over its protagonists isn’t TB but HIV.

Here a group of impoverished young actors, musicians and film-makers on the margins of society struggle to carve out a life in the arty-but-rundown Alphabet City.

The action unfolds against the backdrop of an industrial loft set, all grubby arched warehouse windows, metal staircases and general air of pre-gentrification.

And it’s quite some action from a young and extremely talented cast who radiate passion and energy and who invest wholeheartedly in their characters, meaning the audience invests in them too.

The core cast of eight produce a wealth of impressive performances, among them Kai Grosscurth who dazzles as drag queen Angel, Charlie Mae McKevitt as the drama queen Maureen, and Jamil Abbasi as the plot’s semi-narrator Mark.

They are also very strong vocally, particularly Ellie Norton as the troubled Mimi (pictured above) and Will Callan (playing Tom Collins) whose singing voice has wonderful warmth, texture and depth of tone. His lament for the lost Angel is particularly beautiful.

The cast of Rent. All photos by Phil Tragen

Natalie Flynn has the benefit of working with a cast size (37 characters and chorus) that other directors could only dream of, and the full ensemble performances of the show’s big numbers like Rent, On The Street and Seasons of Love are harmonically rich and punchy.

Larson was a disciple of Stephen Sondheim, and his mentor’s musical influence comes out in the tricksy sung through passages which are tackled with aplomb by the young performers.

If I was feeling churlish I might suggest that occasionally there’s a lack of enunciation in some of the passing passages, mostly involving secondary characters. But that’s easily rectifiable and a tiny quibble in what is overall a deserved triumph of a production.

Hugely impressive stuff. It’s simply a shame there are only three performances in total.

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