Bare Cheek Theatre Company brought their exciting semi-professional production of the hit AIDS musical Rent to the opulent Wexford Opera House prior to a run at Cork Opera House. Using a fine professional front line of principal performers supplemented with in this case members of Wexford Youth Theatre, director Tony McCleane-Fay has worked hard to achieve the emotional highs of a sad modern version of Puccini’s La Boheme. Set in a rundown tenement or warehouse area with a skid row feel to it where impoverished young artists pursue their movie and musical dreams while caught up in drugs, AIDS and casual promiscuity.

You meet Mark, a documentary film-maker who narrates the story with fun voicemail interjections that work well as an almost recitative feel. Mark introduces the doomed romantic Roger who wants to write one last meaningful song before he dies. There’s Collins his friend who loves a drag queen Angel, Roger’s love interest is Mimi, a doomed dancer and drug addict. There is a bi-sexual couple the post but dominant Joanne and flirty Maureen who cheats with abandon.

Out of this Jonathan Larson created a hit musical in 1995 and he died tragically at age 36 and never saw the success of his show. The set was grungy as you would expect and with a wonderful band of four led by conductor Dave Doc O’Connor the show was musically energised. The use of stage was a bit odd and a better layout to the sides might have helped but I was disappointed by a lazy under-lit design that left key emotional songs in vague shadow.

The Wexford Youth chorus gave the big numbers like Seasons of Love, Another Day and I’ll Cover You and La Vie Boheme great vibrant emphasis. The first act was slow as characters came and went but there was such a blast in the powerful second act that impressed me so much! The cast revelled in the rush of sadness and authentic emotion with some strong and memorable performances from Alan McHale as Mark – what an excellent performer. Marnie McCleane-Fay was special as Mimi and she is still a teenager with great prospects. Her work on Light My Candle and Without You were highlights. Denis Grindel as Angel was amazing in high-heel boots and he caught the doomed party mood of Happy New Year.

Elaine Hearty was exciting as the emotional firecracker Maureen. Her Over The Moon was beautiful.

When this production gets to Cork in early March I’m sure the lighting will have improved and it will be a musical experience to savour.