REVIEW: Seasons Of Larson, Apollo Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Seasons Of Larson at The Lyric Theatre
The cast of Seasons Of Larson. Photo: Claire Bilyard

Seasons Of Larson
Lyric Theatre
25 January 2016
4 Stars

What’s the point of a one-off concert like Seasons of Larson? Minus context, characters or consequences, how will the work of the late legendary Broadway composer translate? It can’t hope to resonate here, on this unusually warm January evening, within the hollow parameters of a West End theatre with performers at microphone stands… can it?

It’s true. Sat in the auditorium of the Lyric Theatre, 20 years to the day since Jonathan Larson’s death, one does feel a million miles away from the struggling artist’s life in America ‘at the end of the millennium’. However, the audience escaped these trappings via Adrian Gee’s subtle design, Grant Murphy’s directorial touches and the powerful on-stage band led by musical director Gareth Bretherton (who aside from everything else is an excellent dancer).

The cast – Anton Stephans, Noel Sullivan, Debbie Kurup, Krysten Cummings and Damien Flood – tackled Larson’s most iconic songs (Seasons of Love, What You Own, Louder Than Words) as well and bringing some of his lesser known work (Break Out The Booze and Open Road) back to life. The music was interspersed with the cast’s poignant and personal reflections on how the composer had influenced them.

They took firm hold of Larson’s lyrics and crescendoing rock melodies – every word, every beat, brimming with anger and exigency; his lyrics carry imperative messages that couldn’t be swallowed passively by Larson’s audiences, and capture a sense of urgency characteristic of a life lost too soon. Spitting out the words as if they were his last, Sullivan (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Rock of Ages, Priscilla Queen Of The Desert and We Will Rock You) made a particular impression, injecting energy and heart into well-known and little-known numbers alike.

The concert in four sections – the seasons of Larson’s life – really fired up with Cummings’ and Kurup’s rendition of Take Me Or Leave Me from Rent, the musical for which Larson is best known and for which he posthumously received the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical. These women demonstrated a rare exuberance and playfulness that only comes from a song being truly in a performer’s bones. The same can be said of Cumming’s (Mimi in Rent in the West End and on tour) ‘lived in’ and wonderfully frenzied performance of Out Tonight.

True rock star Flood, who played Roger in Rent both in the West End and on tour, inevitably came into his own for What You Own and One Song Glory – singing the latter with an enormous sense of privilege and, of course, nostalgia. There’s no question that this song is, and always will be, precious to him, as is his talented daughter, Scarlett Silver, who made her West End debut singing Larson’s Destination Sky.

Seasons Of Larson at the Lyric Theatre
Krysten Cummings in Seasons Of Larson. Photo: Claire Bilyard

Vocal performance of the night, however, goes without question to Kurup who most certainly lived in America ‘at the end of the millennium’ and played Mimi in Canadian, London and Broadway productions of Rent. Kurup sung Come To Your Senses from Tick Tick Boom and Without You from Rent as if Larson had written them solely for her, caressing Larson’s lyrics and nailing every one of the killer top notes.

Then to bring the evening to its conclusion, and the audience to their feet, was Stephans’ rendition of I’ll Cover You Reprise from Rent – a truly upsetting moment with heavenly backing from the choir made up of students from The London School of Musical Theatre.  

Because Larson died unexpectedly on the day of the first preview of Rent Off-Broadway, it has been said that he had unknowingly written his own memorial. The devastated cast on that night, twenty years ago, went on stage to sing his music and make him proud. Tragedy lies in the fact that he would never live to see the impact his work would have – not just as notes and words on a page or stage, but as a message to mankind that is passed on now through the work of the Jonathan Larson Foundation.

As is the nature of these one-off concert performances, there were a few uncomfortable moments: the occasional over-ambitious note or mislaid lyric, one or two ill-judged interactions with the crowd, times when the performers might be ‘feeling it’ a little more than the audience. However, all is forgiven because the event’s purpose has been played out.

And so to my earlier question – what’s the point of a one-off concert like Seasons of Larson? Well, the cast and creative team of this particular celebration made it perfectly clear by not only demonstrating the timelessness of Larson’s work, but by re-evoking his urgent cries for change and reform. The concert reminded its audience that, although Larson was taken from this world tragically young, his music and the spirit within it continues to live on. And the value of resurrecting that, even just for one short evening, is inestimable.

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