Theater : MVRHS comes up with "Rent"
The darkened Performing Arts Center was quiet. Rows of empty seats were draped in jackets, scarves, bookbags, and teen paraphernalia. There was no audience, but mood in the large auditorium was intense, for the midweek run-through of Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning Broadway musical, "Rent," School Edition (Musical Theatre International school version).
Martha's Vineyard Regional High School drama department director Kate Poole Murray had lost her voice, motioning and signing to indicate necessary adjustments. Mike Patnaude, assistant director and stage manager, was everywhere at once, one minute silently leaping on and off the stage, the next, bellowing one-word directives. Everyone in the cast of more than 40 seemed to know exactly where he or she belonged.
For almost two hours, a choreographed energy emanated from the stage as the actors, each on a well-rehearsed mission, performed in turn on the brightly lit stage.
Inspired by Puccini's 1896 opera "La Bohème," "Rent," represents a generation of disfranchised New York bohemians in the late 1990s. The play depicts a year in the lives of a community of seven beleaguered friends - non-conforming artists and musicians who've taken up residence in an empty industrial building on the Lower East Side. While their relatives leave glib messages on their answering machines, the seven struggle with relationships, addiction, AIDS, eviction, and the results of homophobia.
It is the sixth musical show produced by Ms. Murray, who explains: "The show does not glorify any of the issues the characters face...the news at noon has worse circumstances. This is literally about the human experience of young artists. It leaves a sense of understanding that no matter what your struggles, a community of friends becomes a family that help to make it through.
"I chose this show because the kids wanted to do it. Kids need experiences they can relate to and that are pertinent to them. It's almost naïve to believe our Island kids don't face these struggles. Young people have questions they're trying to figure out, whether they're in a city or here... They present superb work because it means something to them."
She paused for emphasis: "I'm not just the director - I'm an educator. And this is an amazing educational experience."
And so, in Thursday's run-through, with its hand-held mics, the polish and power still being refined. The stage, transformed by technical director Buck Martin and student set designer Austin Gampher, is bleak - gray concrete block exterior of buildings in Alphabet City. The open two-level construction and scaffolding suddenly fills with a chorus of gyrating, hip shaking, arm waving dancers, choreographed by Lianna Loughman. Ms. Loughman, a veteran of the high school productions, refers to the process as "a labor of love."
It's our kids portraying those kids, and they move naturally, sing and speak naturally. It is a rock opera - almost all the dialogue is sung and accompanied by the onstage band (Mike Tinus, Sal McNamara, Taylor Smith) led by musical director Jan Wightman on keyboard. There are many solos - Naomi Pallas, Haley Hewson, Rykerr Maynard, and an astonishing Hannah Marlin among them- and each has a voice one would not think possible among young non-professionals.
Nick Jerome steps up to the role of Mark, the show's narrator, an aspiring filmmaker tempted to abandon his principles. Austin Gampfer adds pathos to the part of Mark's roommate Roger, a disillusioned musician who won't admit his love for Mimi, the AIDS infected bar room dancer, touchingly played by Naomi Pallas. Then there is Haley Hewson as the fickle Joanne, and Hannah Marlin as Maureen, her spunky girlfriend. Rykerr Maynard appears as Tom, rescued from street thugs by a scene-stealing Taylor Rasmussen as Angel, his transvestite partner. Alex Roan is appropriately stuffy as Benjamin, the sell-out landlord, once a friend, but now threatening all with eviction.
Some of the principle roles are shared- Taylor McNeely as Mark, Sidra Dumont as Joanne, Katie Mayhew as Mimi, and Tessa Permar as Maureen - the actors appearing in alternate shows.
It is an ambitious production. The rafters will shake, and the work of production manager Kirkland Beck, staff and crews will be rewarded. Both Ms. Murray and her cohort Ms. Wightman, close friends as well as partners in the production, acknowledge the long hours and strenuous work that goes into the show.
"The most amazing part is to watch the kids pull it together. When they're up there, and they add their own dimensions and stuff - that's the best part," Ms. Wightman says.
"Rent" is not an easy, sit-back-and-sing-along show. As much as it requires of its actors, it requires of its audiences. Attention has to be paid. The tunes, with one or two exceptions, including "Seasons of Love," are not particularly catchy, and while the message might ultimately be uplifting, the story line is grim. Rated PG-13, this one is not for children (every other year the drama department presents a family-style show), but those who come for "Rent" should find it worthwhile.
"Rent School Edition" opens tonight, Feb. 11, at the MVRHS Performing Arts Center. Evening shows Thursday, Friday, and Saturday start at 7 pm; a matinee on Saturday starts at 1 pm. $10; $7 seniors/students. Rated PG-13. Not for children.