Dallas — To answer the first question that Rent-heads will have about the School Edition of the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Jonathan Larson musical, this version is not drastically different from the rock musical over which you’ve obsessed for more than two decades. (Yes, it has been that long.)
Judging from Junior Players’ current production of Rent: School Edition at Dallas City Performance Hall, most of the songs are still there—with the notable and understandable exception being the sexually explicit “Contact”—and the coarse language, of curse words and sexual content in lyrics, is toned down.
But not all the way. In this production, directed by Valerie Hauss-Smith with musical direction by Mark Mullino and choreography by Kelly McCain, there are a few eyebrow-raising words uttered, and the option to change Mark’s lyric in “La Vie Boheme” from “mucho masturbation” to “mucho medication” stays with the original.
After all, high school kids have heard (and probably said) much worse, right? It’s really more about the themes and gay relationships that have spurred protests from some communities when their high schools have wanted to produce Rent: School Edition, which premiered in 2008. It remains the story of struggling twentysomething artists and musicians in New York’s East Village in 1989-’90, the early days of AZT shining some hope on the devastation that HIV/AIDS caused in the 1980s.
Considering the wider acceptance of same-sex relationships, the fact that gay marriage is legal, and a greater understanding of the gender spectrum, these kids are probably thinking “what’s the big deal?”
Junior Players’ production, with a cast of 22 from 12 area high schools, doesn’t shy away from all that. Most of the characters in Rent are only a few years older than these students. And even for those of us now old enough to be annoyed with these foolish youths, siding more with landlord Benny (Timothy Owens II), these junior players captivatingly tap into their idealism, fears and need for activism and art for social change. (The musical is based on Puccini’s La bohème.)
It should be noted that these characters are emerging from a political climate not unlike the one we’re now facing.
Tanner Garmon plays aspiring documentary filmmaker Mark and Jackson Pitt is his roommate Roger, a musician who has a thing with night club dancer Mimi (Lisette Sandoval). Mark’s ex Maureen (Victoria Biro), a performance artist now dating lawyer Joanne (Madeleine Norton). Their anarchist friend Tom (Kevin Tejada) falls for Angel (Carlos Joglar), a drag queen and the life of every party which, with this group, does not lack for outsized personalities. Several characters are HIV-positive, abuse drugs and struggle to pay their rent and utilities.
With Jeffrey Schmidt’s scenic design (mostly scaffolding, as with the original) and costuming by Bruce R. Coleman—which smartly doesn’t attempt to mimic the original costumes—Hauss-Smith and the ensemble capture the bustling life of the East Village in the winter.
On opening night, there were several notes that dropped off and some imperfect chorus work, and a few times when the mics didn’t help projection. But there was plenty of energy and all-in performances with the three biggest character-showcasing numbers: Biro in Maureen’s “Over the Moon,” Sandoval in Mimi’s “Out Tonight” and Joglar in Angel’s “Today 4 U.” And it’s impossible not to get a lump in your throat during “Seasons of Love.”
McCain’s choreography for the ensemble in “Santa Fe” and “Tango Maureen” is executed well by the cast. Hauss-Smith sets up the show as a piece of theater, its own art for social change, with a ghostlight that is onstage before the show begins and is wheeled off in the opening moments.
Junior Players, founded in 1955, allows high school students across the city to participate in theater-making for free. Its other programs include a Shakespeare production following the summer season of Shakespeare Dallas (this year they’ll do Othello, not an easy play for actors of any age); readings of new plays by high school students called the PUP Fest, in conjunction with Kitchen Dog Theater’s New Works Festival; and a new dance/theater initiative called Metamorphosis.
Rent marks the group’s third January musical at City Performance Hall, following Fame and In the Heights. It’s significant that these kids are working with professional designers and learn the importance of live music (Mullino, on piano, leads a band of five other musicians) in musicals.
After this performance of the most important musical of the 1990’s, perhaps other musicals with social significance and characters that are about the same age as the performers, say Spring Awakening or Hair, will be on the list for the future.