BWW Reviews: HSPVA's RENT is an Energetic Celebration of Life and Love

In all honesty, there really is nothing more fun than seeing the next generation of musical theatre talent put on a great production of one of Broadway's mega-hits. Fortunately for Houston audiences, that's exactly what is happening in HSPVA's Black Box Theatre, as the school presents Jonathan Larson's RENT. Even with some altered lyrics and cut songs, the edgy production pushes envelopes as far as a public high school production can. Please note, the production is still recommended for mature audiences only.

Jonathan Larson based his RENT on Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME. RENT updates the opera's plot, telling the story of artists in Manhattan's East Village. Gone is the threat of Tuberculosis. It has been replaced with the lethal disease AIDS. On a fateful Christmas Eve, Mark and Roger's landlord, Benny, demands the past year's rent, there are several chance encounters that begin new and fertile relationships, and the artistically inclined characters struggle to create something both fulfilling and meaningful all while coping with the pressures of life.

Direction by Cynthia Ogden captures the energy of RENT, making the characters infectiously fun for the audience. A few moments read kind of awkward to me; however, I firmly believe this is caused by a lack of life experience. The high school cast is young and a select few moments in the show don't seem to resonate within their individual sets of life experiences, which implies that they have great parents. Despite this, Cynthia Ogden directs the cast through earnest and appealing characterizations, skillfully capturing the hearts of the audience and ensuring a highly enjoyable evening of theatre.

Charles Swan's choreography is bursting with electrifying power and strength. It is no secret that audiences look forward to seeing Angel leap around the stage in heeled platforms among other things, a fact that the recent Off-Broadway revival of RENT ignored. However, audiences will get everything their heart desires here. The dancing is impressive, especially during the bouncy "Today 4 U" and inspiring and insightful "La Vie Boheme."

As Musical Director, Charles Swan's direction of the band keeps the energy high, moving through the numbers with nimble dexterity. He has also coached the cast to sing with conviction and precision. In the few moments where a note is missed, the cast is so filled with brilliant and striking emotionality that the flaw can be easily overlooked and pardoned. These über-talented high school students sing their hearts out and sell each moment of every song to the audience with laudable sincerity and skill.

Roger Davis is deftly played and sung by Fleet Simons. His mannerisms match his costuming and demeanor, breathing believable life into his grungy punk-rock approach to the character. His voice consistently impresses on the lush romantic numbers "I Should Tell You," "Without You," and "Your Eyes." Similarly, his rocker edge dazzles on "What You Own" and "One Song Glory."

Mimi Marquez is pleasantly portrayed by Celeste Arrazolo. While her rendition of "Light My Candle" seemed a bit awkward because she didn't fully commit to the sensuality of the number, her rousing and high-spirited "Out Tonight" won me over and allowed her to showcase her singing and acting prowess. Additionally, it has been years since I've heard someone nail the high notes in "Out Tonight" in live performance, and she hit every single one with amazing clarity, grace, and style. Likewise, Celeste Arrazolo shines on numbers like "Another Day," "I Should Tell You," and "Without You."

Keenan Hurley wonderfully plays Mark Cohen, RENT's narrator. His passion for helping his friends and documenting their struggles is proficiently acted. His vocals charm and move the audience with ease, especially on the emotionally tender "Halloween" and the bitingly ironic "What You Own."

Ebrin Stanley, playing Tom Collins, is a showstopping talent and force to be reckoned with. His smooth vocals and demeanor make the emotions behind numbers like "Santa Fe," "I'll Cover You," the "Seasons of Love" male solo, and "I'll Cover You (Reprise)" remarkably tangible. There is simply no denying that Ebrin Stanley's exuberant talent and pizzazz on the stage makes his excellent performance wonderfully memorable.

Portraying Angel Dumott Schunard, Wesley Whitson is amazingly skilled and talented. He never stumbles as he does numerous acrobatic leaps around the stage in high-heeled platforms and full Santa drag. In addition to these stunning athletic feats, he doesn't miss a single note in "Today 4 U." Moreover, Wesley Whitson fully comprehends that his character is the emotional center of the show, and he easily and pristinely affects our hearts in various ways throughout the performance.

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