Thoroughly staged "RENT" a striking production

Winter may not seem like the season of love, but Vocal Miscellany's production of "RENT" will give Geneseo something to sing about.

"RENT" follows a ragtag band of irreverent artists through a year of living, struggling, laughing and crying together in New York's Bohemian Lower East Side. Relationships bloom, tempers flare and hearts break as each character tries to find their place in a world stricken by AIDS and corporate greed.

The cast pumps up the energy in "Rent," the first full ensemble song that combines full, fantastic vocals with visually absorbing choreography. Other group numbers are just as dazzling, with excellent vocal balance and clever movement which often explodes off the stage and draws the audience into the show.

Though the entire cast is remarkably talented, several standouts deserve recognition. Junior Jake Roa plays dying composer Roger Davis with a riveting, desperate intensity that captivated the audience, especially in his heartbreaking and beautifully rendered solo, "One Song Glory."

Senior MaryElisabeth Kimbark is dynamic and vibrant as club dancer Mimi Marquez, transitioning from vivacious to vulnerable on a dime. Her vocal talent shines in both solos and ensemble songs.

The part of performance artist Maureen Johnson is played hilariously by junior Becky Hoffman, who steals the end of Act 1 with her side-splitting "Over the Moon" musical monologue.

Even the actors in smaller background roles are remarkably distinctive, immersing themselves in quirky characters that are just as interesting to watch as the leads. Senior Leora Bernstein belts a stratospheric descant in "Seasons of Love" and junior Michelle Geisler is hysterical as both a binocular-toting bum and a worried Jewish mother.

The graffiti-covered set has a grungy charm, filled with ladders, tables and stairs that the dancers exploit to the fullest. With actors regularly scattered across every level of the stage, the visual energy is explosive.

The set also presents one of the musical's biggest problems. Due to its minimalistic variations from scene to scene, it's often hard to place the characters both spatially and temporally, and the audience is forced to rely solely on dialogue cues to figure out when and where they are.

On occasion, the skilled pit band and ensemble overpowers the solos in volume, and vital lyrics by some of the quieter cast members get lost in the jumble.

But what the crew lacks in sound quality they make up for in spectacular lighting effects. In the opening number alone there were more lighting changes than one often sees in an entire show, and the transitions were effortless and dazzling.

Vocal Miscellany's production of "RENT" is one of the first performances by a college in the western New York area since its 12-year Broadway run ended in September 2008.

The "RENT" ensemble returned to Geneseo on Jan. 3 and practiced up to nine hours a day, an effort that shows in their crisp and impassioned performance.

"RENT" will play in Wadsworth Auditorium from Jan. 28-30 at 8 p.m. Tickets are on sale at the Brodie Box Office.