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

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

The wild and opinionated Maureen Johnson is masterfully played by Maya Critchlow. She gleefully owns the stage during the hilarious and thought-provoking "Over the Moon." Moreover, she lends her astonishing vocal talent to the female solo in "Season of Love" and a strikingly soulful and touching timbre during "Take Me or Leave Me."

Libby Jasper's Joanne Jefferson is strong and well mannered, keeping her cool under pressure. Her vocals are stirring and magnificent on "Tango: Maureen" and "Take Me or Leave Me."

Hunter McEachern plays scummy Benjamin Coffin III with blatant cockiness. He handles the role well, and perfectly embodies the character the audience loves to hate.

I have always felt that RENT's ensemble is one of the hardest working ensembles in musical theatre history, and the students at HSPVA wondrously and deftly prove this feeling. They switch costumes to play different roles with surprising speed and do fantastic work to ensure that they create many different characters to flesh out the story. Standout performances in the ensemble are Maddy Auchter's hilarious and doting Mark's Mom, Dillon Glass's fearful Gordan, Hannah Griffith's quirky and bubbly Alexi Darling, Fernando Grimaldo's worried Restaurant Man, Jacob Seferian's genial and amiable Squeegie Man, Nadia Yakan's confused Roger's mother, and Paige Zubel's angry Blanket Person.

Scenic Design by Paul Davis is striking and beautiful. His set is reminiscent of the 2005 film adaptation's vision of the apartment. It also perfectly captures the architectural feel of New York's East Village, making it versatile and able to represent many different areas around New York City.

Marc Duncan's Light Design uses color washes skillfully to heighten tone through adding a rich level of atmospheric ambience to the performance. Also, the lights are usually bright and vibrant, which heightens the overall celebratory, cheerful, and lively feel of the production.

Sound Design by Marc Duncan is crisp and clear for a majority of the production. During "Seasons of Love" and "Happy New Year A" the band was louder than the performers' microphones; however, the HSPVA students were projecting well enough to not make this a problem.

Riley McGann and Natalia Silvani's Costume Design expertly capture fashion choices of the mid to late 1990s. They recreate the grungy look that invaded the rock music scene, giving this production of RENT a firmly 1996-7 feel.

Houston Independent School District deserves a lot of kudos themselves for creating a magnet school that fosters and encourages arts education for high school students in the Houston area. The students at this school are getting amazing training while getting to perform and hone their crafts. From what I saw at last night's opening night of RENT, there is no denying that the students that graduate from HSPVA are the next generation of prominent, well-known artists. I have a feeling we'll be seeing many of these names in lights and on screens around town, in New York, LA, Chicago, and London for years to come.

HSPVA's RENT is a true celebration of life, love, art, and friendship. It's a youthful and energetic production that reminds audiences why this show captivated the masses almost 17 years ago when it first premiered on Broadway. I can't help but imagine that Jonathan Larson is very proud of this talented cast and crew, blessing their show with ear to ear smiles, cheers, and hearty applause.

RENT runs through Saturday, April 6, 2013 in HSPVA's Black Box Theatre. All performances of RENT at HSPVA are sold out. However, they do have a waiting list for each performance. For more information about HSPVA's production of RENT please visit http://www.houstonisd.org/hspvarts or http://www.hspvatheatreguild.org.

Photos courtesy of Charles Swan and HSPVA.

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

BWW Reviews: HSPVA's RENT is an Energetic Celebration of Life and Love
Wesley Whitson (Angel Dumott Schunard) asks "You Okay, Honey?"

BWW Reviews: HSPVA's RENT is an Energetic Celebration of Life and Love
Keenan Hurley (Mark Cohen) and Libby Jasper (Joanne Jefferson) dance the "Tango: Maureen."

BWW Reviews: HSPVA's RENT is an Energetic Celebration of Life and Love
Celeste Arrazolo (Mimi Marquez) is ready to go "Out Tonight!"

BWW Reviews: HSPVA's RENT is an Energetic Celebration of Life and Love
Ebrin Stanley (Tom Collins) and cast of HSPVA's RENT perform "Christmas Bells."

BWW Reviews: HSPVA's RENT is an Energetic Celebration of Life and Love
Maya Critchlow (Maureen Johnson) performs "Over the Moon."

BWW Reviews: HSPVA's RENT is an Energetic Celebration of Life and Love
Maya Critchlow (Maureen Johnson) performs "Over the Moon" with help from (L to R) Dillon Glass, Paige Zubel, Jacob Seferian & Hannah Griffith.

BWW Reviews: HSPVA's RENT is an Energetic Celebration of Life and Love
The Cast of RENT performs "La Vie Boheme B" at HSPVA.

BWW Reviews: HSPVA's RENT is an Energetic Celebration of Life and Love
Wesley Whitson (Angel Dumott Schunard), Ebrin Stanley (Tom Collins), and the cast of HSPVA's RENT perform "I'll Cover You (Reprise)."

BWW Reviews: HSPVA's RENT is an Energetic Celebration of Life and Love
Wesley Whitson (Angel Dumot Schunard) departs during "I'll Cover You (Reprise)."

BWW Reviews: HSPVA's RENT is an Energetic Celebration of Life and Love
L to R: Maddy Auchter (Ensemble), Fleet Simons (Roger Davis), Ebrin Stanley (Tom Collins), Libby Jasper (Joanne Jefferson), and Paige Zubel (Ensemble) perform "Goodbye Love."

BWW Reviews: HSPVA's RENT is an Energetic Celebration of Life and Love
The cast of HSPVA's RENT perform "Finale B."

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

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