Exuberant “Rent” at Pioneer High another in a series of buzzworthy musicals, but was it the last?

Rent-Angel

Angel (Robbie Stephens) and Tom (Caleb Horvath) in “Rent.” Photo / Myra Klarman

By Roger LeLievre
Ann Arbor, Mich. (May 3, 2014)

Pioneer High School’s Theatre Guild, known the past several years for staging talk-of-the-town productions of popular musicals, just finished a run of the groundbreaking-for-its-time “Rent.”

The show was a worthy successor to a string of earlier, highly-ambitious Pioneer efforts such as “Les Miserables,” “Miss Saigon” and “Shrek: The Musical.” It’s often hard to remember these are teens, not seasoned professionals. Since the theater program could be scaled back next year due to Ann Arbor Public School budget constraints, let’s hope it’s not the last.

Rent

Roger, played by Nathan Stout. Photo / Myra Klarman

Set in the East Village of New York City and based loosely on Puccini’s La Boheme, “Rent” is about falling in love, finding your voice and living for today. Winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the show follows a year in the life of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and create in New York’s Lower East Side, under the shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1990s.

The physical and emotional complications of the disease pervade the lives of Roger (Nathan Stout), Mimi (Olivia Roumel), Tom (Caleb Horvath) and Angel (Robbie Stephens). Maureen (Rose Meehan) deals with her chronic infidelity through performance art, while her partner, Joanne (Adriana Ellis), wonders if their relationship is worth the trouble. Meanwhile, Benny (Michael Shapiro) has sold out his bohemian ideals in exchange for big bucks and is on the outs with his former friends. Mark (Remington Reackhof), an aspiring filmmaker, feels like an outsider to life in general.

“Seasons of Love,” the show’s signature song, was moving and beautifully sung (way to go, soloist Abigail Hirshbein!). Stephens’s portrayal of drag queen Angel was full of heart. Stout, Roumel, Reackhof and the others were superb in their roles. I only wish I could have heard them better, which leads to my only real problem with the show – many of the vocals (at least from where I was sitting) were drowned out by the orchestra. Rather than turn down the music, I would have turned up the singers. Schreiber Auditorium is a huge place and needs a big sound.

Some of the singing was all over the place, and the ensemble was sometimes a little ragged, but the energy and pure joy of performing that these young people brought to the show made up for any of shortfalls. The thunderous standing ovation proved that true.

Speaking of size, the stage is huge, and the large cast did a great job of owning every inch of it, as well as inhabiting their characters completely. Near age-appropriateness always helps, but the youthful confidence every one of them brought to their roles really made the difference in selling the show.

Costumes, too, were well done, as well as the set, the lighting, choreography and music. All were professional in quality. Ryan Vasquez, a University of Michigan senior Musical Theatre major, directed, assisted by Schuyler Robinson, a U-M student and Pioneer Theater Guild alum. Robert Ariza, a U-M senior and Musical Theatre major, led the orchestra.

The program notes talked about the director’s struggle to make the show more relevant to young people growing up nearly 20 years after the show made its debut, and it came to the conclusion that “Rent” is about neither AIDS nor drugs. It’s about relationships, community and love. Vasquez urged viewers to move beyond the work’s “dated shell” and reflect on the emotion behind the piece. To do that, the production needs to succeed. It needs to have heart.

It did, and they nailed it.

If productions like “Rent” at Pioneer have to end, at least they will have gone out on a high note. The real shame would be that they might have to end at all.

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