By Donalevan Maines
How do the Houston-area teenagers rehearsing the edgy rock musical Rent (with performances September 18–19 at the Hobby Center) measure the 525,600 minutes in a year?
In phone calls, in homework
In romance, in energy drinks
In football, in apps, in college visits (I wonder?)
One thing is for sure: their brush with the defining Broadway musical of the 1990s has changed them for good.
“I cherish life more,” says Jamir Brown, an out 16-year-old junior at Manvel High School, who plays Collins, one of several Rent characters struggling with AIDS in New York City’s East Village in the 1990s. “I want to live like them, living each day to the fullest,” Brown says of the HIV-positive artists depicted in the late Jonathan Larson’s loose re-telling of Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 opera La Bohème. “I make sure to love my family, and I realize what a blessing it is to wake up each morning and be able to walk, and not having health issues.”
Brown explains that he “knew very little” about Rent when Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) announced that it would be the 12th production of its annual Summer Conservatory Program. “I watched the movie one time, and I didn’t really understand it,” says Brown. “I was not really a fan. When I first auditioned, I thought maybe I would be cast in the ensemble, or not make it at all.”
In contrast, Danielle Troiano, a 17-year-old senior at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) in Montrose, “fell in love” with Rent when she saw its 2005 movie version a few years ago. ”I must have been 13 or 14, a freshman,” she says, at Ridge Point High School in Missouri City, where she lives. “I was a little bit naïve about the subject matter—I didn’t have a reaction to the situation they were in—I just loved the songs.”
Not a one of the cast members was even born when Rent premiered in 1994. Many—if not all—of them didn’t “get educated with the subject matter,” explains Troiano, until “a panel of individuals from Legacy Community Health promoting HIV/AIDS awareness” spoke to the cast at TUTS’ downtown studio on their third day of rehearsal.
Rent won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Score (for Larson), and Best Featured Actor in a Musical (for Wilson Jermaine Heredia as Angel Dumott Schunard, a buoyant young drag queen and street drummer).
At TUTS, Angel is played by Aaron Strack, a 17-year-old senior at Pearland’s Dawson High School, in his first leading role.
Performers who starred in both stage and screen versions of Rent, in addition to Heredia, were Anthony Rapp as Mark Cohen, Adam Pascal as Roger Davis, Rosario Dawson as Mimi Márquez, Jesse L. Martin as Tom Collins, Idina Menzel as Maureen Johnson, and Taye Diggs as Benjamin Coffin III.
Director Bobby Linhart says, “There are millions of people worldwide who are currently infected with HIV/AIDS, and, sadly, one of every four new cases in the United States is among youth ages 13–24. Our amazingly talented cast of students from the greater Houston area fits into this age bracket and is poised to bring its unique perspective to the characters.”
Roger Davis, played by Raheem Maughn, is a freshman engineering major at the University of Houston. He won a Tommy Tune Award earlier this year as Enjolras in Klein High School’s production of the “school edition” of Les Misérables. There is a tamer “school edition” of Rent, too, says Linhart, but TUTS’ Education and Community Engagement programs were determined “not to stray far from the real meaning of the show,” explains Troiano.
Playing the role of Mark Cohen is Dylan Lambert, a student at St. Pius X High School. Appearing as Benjamin Coffin III is Alex Rudd of Friendswood, while Mimi is portrayed by Melissa Ramos, a 2015 Best Leading Actress nominee at the Tommy Tune Awards for her performance as Wednesday Addams in Kerr High School’s production of The Addams Family, The Musical.
HSPVA student Samantha Williams is cast as Maureen, an unpredictably zany performance artist, while Mallory Bechtel, a student at The John Cooper School, is Joanne Jefferson, a smart public-interest lawyer who belts out the crux of Rent’s most famous song, “Seasons of Love,” when she testifies, “Oh, you got to remember the love/You know that life is a gift from up above/Share love, give love, spread love/Measure your life in love.”
Among other show-stopping songs are “I Should Tell You,” “I’ll Cover You,” “La Vie Bohème,” “Light My Candle,” “One Song Glory,” “Take Me or Leave Me,” “Today 4 U,” “Will I?” and “Your Eyes.”
Rounding out the cast at TUTS are Jaylen Axel, Cardero Berryman, Anthony Buzbee, Chase Callahan, Treat Carrier, Gerra Gistand, Blake Harlson, Austin Karkowsky, Ashlyn Maddox, Alexa Magro, McKenna Marmolejo, Jacob Masson, Savannah May, Grace Nardecchia, India Sherman, Aiden Snasdell, Desi Stephens, Elvin Stewart and Kerry Sullivan.
What: TUTS’ Humphrey School of Musical Theatre presents Rent
When: September 18–19
Where: The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby Street
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.