Homer Alaska - Arts

Story last updated at 8:47 PM on Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Positive message is at heart of 'Rent'



Photo by Michael Armstrong

The cast of "Rent" sings "Seasons of Love" at a rehearsal Sunday for the Homer High School production.

In many stories, plays and musicals, often a scene or song expresses the heart of the work. In "Rent," the Homer High School Concert Choir's production of the Broadway musical, that moment comes in the second act, when the core cast, backed by the main chorus, sings "Seasons of Love."

"In five hundred twenty-five thousand / six hundred minutes / how do you measure a year in the life?" the song asks. The answer? "How about love? How about love?"

With issues like AIDS, drug abuse and homelessness, "Rent" might appear depressing. One parent, writing to the Homer News after he heard of the high school production, said, "I could find nothing that I would consider inspiring, uplifting or virtuous."

Musical director Mark Robinson said that while controversial, "Rent" has a positive message.

"It's very much an uplifting show," he said. "Its core message is in the midst of difficult circumstance, you can choose love, you can choose life, you can embrace community, you can choose kindness."

Loosely based on Puccini's opera, "La Boheme," "Rent," first performed in 1994, updates Puccini's story of artists struggling to survive amidst poverty and disease in early 19th century Paris. "Rent" is set in 1990s New York, and instead of tuberculosis, the disease threatening its idealistic youth is AIDS. The story follows a year in the life of a group of friends: Mark, a filmmaker; his former lover, Maureen, a performance artist; Maureen's love, Joanne, a lawyer; Mark's roommate Roger, a musician and recovering drug addict; Mimi, an exotic dancer and junkie with whom Roger falls in love; Tom Collins, a computer genius; Angel, a street musician and drag queen, and Benny, a former member of the group who has become rich and is their landlord — and they must pay the rent.

Its eight main roles and numerous solos compelled Robinson and stage director Lance Petersen to chose "Rent." Robinson noted that 30 choir students made all-state honor choir this year, a solid group of talent.

"It's challenging for Lance and I to pick a show that involves a big group a lot and spreads out a lot of major leads," Peterson said.

The school edition of "Rent," approved by the estate of Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, removes much of the harsher content of the original production and a similar movie version. One song with sexually explicit lyrics, "Contact," also has been removed.

He and Petersen made some additional changes to tone it down, Robinson said. They've also tightened up the musical, adding dance numbers to songs instead of making the dance a separate scene.

With a four-piece rock band, "Rent" is a rock opera, with dialogue — the recitative, or recitativo, in opera terms — sung along with the emotional response, the aria. To make the dialogue clearer and understand the storyline better, in the Homer production the recitatives are straight lyrics that are said and not sung. Robinson said he cautions students not to watch movie versions of the musicals. His goal isn't to reproduce the movie.

"Our approach is to make it clean and coherent, always moving," he said.

Last year, the concert choir didn't do a musical to focus on its European tour. That left some freshman and sophomores not getting Broadway musical experience, but the upside is that Robinson has a good group of juniors and seniors in major roles, including Jody Gaines, Alder Fletcher, Drew Simpson, John Hannan, Ben Handley, Wendy Jones, Kirsten Swanson, Kate Spence, Lauren Cashman and Mariah Stuart.


(School Edition)


7:30 p.m. Friday

3, 7:30 p.m. Saturday


Mariner Theatre


$12 general admission at Etude Music Studio and the Homer Bookstore

Discounts available; reservations 235-7579

Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson

School edition adapted with permission of the Larson estate

Musical arrangements by Steve Skinner

Music supervision by Tim Weil

Original concept and additional lyrics by Billy Aronson

Dramaturg by Lynn Thomson

Musical direction by Mark Robinson

Stage direction by Lance Petersen

Band: Jim Buncak, Hal Spence, Justus Sky and Julianne Smith

Featuring Jody Gaines, Alder Fletcher, Drew Simpson, John Hannan, Ben Handley, Wendy Jones, Kirsten Swanson, Kate Spence, Lauren Cashman and Mariah Stuart with the Homer High School Concert Choir

"It's a really talented crew," Robinson said. "Having a crew of kids like this makes doing a challenging project like this so much easier."

The role of Angel, played by Wilson Jermaine Heredia in the original Broadway production, is played by Kirsten Swanson in the Homer High version. As in the plot of "Victor/Victoria," Swanson is a woman playing a man playing a woman. Robinson said casting a show can be challenging because of the array of talents.

"Ultimately, we felt Kirsten had the ability for it," he said. "She has the maturity, the acting ability and the voice to pull it off."

Parents and students who objected to the musical had the option of not being in it, with no repercussions, Robinson said. Several parents expressed concerns and talked with him, he said.

"Does controversial mean it stimulates conversation?" Robinson asked. "That's a good thing, as long as it's polite."

One parent agreed with the choice of "Rent," Robinson said. The parent told him "These are issues my child is going to be confronting. I appreciate the opportunity to have a context to guide him through."

Robinson said he encouraged audiences to look beyond the controversial elements.

"It's a vibrant show. It's uplifting and has a great message," he said. "I think some people can forget that in the context of the difficult material it tackles."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.