Rent Raises the Roof

The Zach Scott Production of “Rent,” playing through November 28 at the Kleberg Stage, proves that New York has little to teach Austin when it comes to making a musical into a raucous good time.

The infectious energy of the cast, made of some of the city’s best R&B, hip hop and gospel talent, pulls the audience into a world that resembles that part of Austin that doesn’t make any “best of” lists. Where people sometimes lack shelter, food and money.

The genius of Jonathon Larson’s award-winning script is that it is uplifting and funny even as it deals with the HIV status, homelessness and daily struggles of its characters as they work through their complicated love lives.

Mark (Andrew Cannata) an aspiring filmmaker is trying to capture this neighborhood under siege by developers while navigating his feelings about his former girlfriend Maureen (Ginger Leigh), a performance artist whose protest song provides one of the nights funniest numbers. Maureen’s new love interest is Joanne, (Kristen Bennett) a woman who finds it hard to control her jealously as Maureen flirts with everything that moves.

Roger (John Pointer), whose girlfriend informed him they were HIV positive in a suicide note, meets and is instantly attracted to Mimi (Karma Stewart), a stripper who comes to his door one night asking him to light her candle.

Stewart, whose look and demeanor remind you of pop star Rihanna, sumptuously conveys the many nuances of Mimi. She infuses the character with a rebellious sensuality that likely made a few audience members want to comply when she sang, “Take me out tonight.”

Although she wants to be with Roger, Mimi is having an affair with Benny (Steve Wiliams), an old friend of Roger and Mark’s. Benny married into a wealthy family and is now threatening to evict his artist tenants and the homeless people who squat in the lot next door, all to put up a high-tech, multi-media art center.

The heart of the play is Angel (Joshua Denning), an HIV positive transvestite who comes to the aid of Collins (Roderick Sanford) after he gets mugged on Christmas Eve. Collins, like the rest of us, is powerless to resist the joy and positivity of Angel who welcomes the holidays dancing in 5-inch platform boots with grace and deftness that would engender envy in supermodels.

The soaring voices of Sanford and soloist Courtney Sanchez (both members of local R&B groups) prove the restorative powers of soul music, although the entire ensemble demonstrates the dexterity of the human voice to the delight of the audience.

Rent at the Zach’s, directed by Dave Steakley, could likely stand toe-to-toe with any Broadway production. The sound in the Kleberg is clear. Every word is enunciated. The set, with it’s graffiti, chain link fence and lighting that seems as though it could have been cast by a fire, give the piece a surreal quality, almost as though it is a memory come to life.

This is a show that even people who say they hate musicals can love.

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