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High School Musical: The Lakes School Production of RENT (April 5, 2011)

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When Tony and I were driving into the Lakes District, on our way to the Ambleside YHA we passed a school that had a large roadside sign advertising their upcoming production of the musical "Rent." I immediately wanted to see it, because I'd never seen an amateur production of "Rent" and was especially curious to see how it would be done by a secondary school. The idea reminded me of a Sue Sylvester line from Glee: "That was the most offensive thing I've seen in 20 years of teaching -- and that includes an elementary school production of Hair." (Though "Rent" thankfully lacks the infamous nudity of "Hair").

I first saw "Rent" during its Washington DC run, when I was in my last year of high school and in town with my father to tour colleges. Having seen a stream of rave reviews from the New York press about this groundbreaking show, I'd reserved tickets far in advance and was full of anticipatory excitement to see it. I knew that the show had updated "La Boheme" by using AIDS in place of TB, and that several characters were gay. What the New York press hadn't mentioned, however, was that the dialogue and lyrics frequently make explicit references -- to S&M, masturbation, ED (remember this predates ubiquitous Viagra ads) -- culminating in the song "Contact." Watching the show with Dad, I'd winced at each sexual remark, but by the end of that song, which depicts the characters having sex complete with all the noises, I was ready to sink through the floor with teenage embarrassment.

Nonetheless, I loved the musical, bought and memorized the soundtrack, and even saw the traveling show in Houston a few years later with my parents, when I was older and less horrified to have them in the same room as a joke about an "inability to maintain an erection on the High Holy Days." Still, the minor trauma of that first viewing sticks with me and made me want to see The Lakes School's production. How would teenagers cope with not just watching such a show with their parents, but performing it in front of them?

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For those unfamiliar with "Rent" [1], it's often categorized as a rock opera like "Hair" or "Tommy," with the overwhelming majority of the show in the form of song. It's very well-suited to a small stage, to the point that Ben Brantley criticized the first Broadway production for failing to expand enough to fill a larger venue. There's no challenging choreography aside from the dancing of "The Tango Maureen"; the costumes are all clothes you could buy at H&M. The characters are mostly young, one being only 19, which in many respects makes them more appropriately played by a teenage cast than by the 30-something one of the 2005 film version.

Because I'd never seen the School Edition of "Rent" before, I don't know how many of The Lakes School production's divergences from the original were consistent with the official bowdlerization, and which were choices by the teacher-director. Wikipedia says "Contact" was omitted from the authorized School Edition, along with the on-stage kissing and some of the coarse language. Because Angel originally dies during "Contact," this important plot point had to be shifted to another song, and works surprisingly well when mimed toward the end of "Without You." Still, several of the lines that shocked me 15 years ago -- Mimi's career in handcuffs, the "mucho masturbation" celebrated in the song "La Vie Boheme" -- are intact.

Perhaps due to the all-white cast necessitated by the school's own demographics, references to Mimi's being Latina were rather awkwardly clipped, most noticeably from "Take Me Out Tonight." [2] The program note says, "Rent is a show with some very modern, controversial and serious social issues such as addiction, HIV, homophobia and multiculturalism." Yet this production obliterated the most complicated aspect of the character Angel: an ambiguous gender identity. Angel's love interest Collins considers himself homosexual and refers to Angel as "he," but Mimi refers to Angel as "she" and the character consistently wears feminine clothing. The Lakes School production simplifies all this by having Angel not only played by a woman (due to the gender bias of high school drama, the characters of Mark and Benny are also played by girls) but characterized in the program and throughout the play as a woman. This required a few changes to the script, some of which were easy and others that were more noticeable. [3] I wonder whether a secondary school, despite the claims to grappling with serious social issues such as homophobia, would be willing to deal with the difficulty of recruiting student actors to depict a male homosexual relationship, even in a version with no physical display of affection beyond hand-holding.

With regard to the quality of the performances, most of the singing was quite good, with a standout from the Year 9 student playing Joanne (despite her tripping slightly over the "sexual harassment and civil rights too" line in the fast-paced solo "We're OK"). The acting was probably the weakest part of the production; in particular, the students who played the central lovers Roger and Mimi sounded quite passionate when they sang to each other, but their facial expressions and movements looked bored. The Angel-Collins relationship was more plausibly affectionate, though the Year 13 student playing Collins evidently struggled to maintain an even bass tone for his singing.

Overall, I enjoyed seeing this "Rent" and found it a worthwhile expenditure of time and money. I also was happy to patronize the refreshment counter when I learned from the program that its profits would go to The Lakes School 2011 Ecuador Expedition team. The students will be going to Ecuador on a "World Challenge Project," which includes volunteering and trekking in the Andes, and concludes with a trip to the Galapagos Islands. A worthy cause for the expenditure of a pound sterling -- and the slice of chocolate cake was pretty good, too.

[1] Given its popularity in the U.S., including having a song featured on Glee (which also guest-starred Idina Menzel, who originated the role of Maureen), I hadn't thought one could be unfamiliar with it. But according to the school program, the teacher directing the show "was then told about 'Rent' -- not the most well known show but, after research, I found out it has massive success in America." And in fairness, it's a musical intensely grounded in a very particular time and place, so understandably it hasn't achieved the international popularity of "The Lion King" or "Cats."

[2] The student actress sang, "In the evening, I've got to roam/ Can't sleep in the city of neon and chrome," then waited through the music that normally accompanies the next lines, "Feels too damn much like home/ When the Spanish babies cry."

[3] The lyrics in "You'll See" that could have created confusion were Collins singing, "I like boys," and Angel replying, "Boys like me." The student actors swapped those lines, so that a female Angel sings, "I like boys," and the heterosexual male Collins replies, "Boys like me" pointing to himself, making clear that he's using "like" to mean "such as." This actually caused me to think about the original's meaning, which I'd always assumed to be just Angel's saying that he received lots of male attention. Not using "like" in its verb sense alters that meaning, so that the trans (vestite? gendered?) Angel is telling the gay-identified Collins "You like boys such as myself -- boys who aren't exactly male."

(I did mention I'd memorized the soundtrack, right?)

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