When Avon Summer Theater chose the school version of “RENT” as its summer musical, there were concerns from some district officials that Avon could run into similar problems Trumbull High School had over the controversial show earlier this year and from select community members about the nature of the content.
But there never was a doubt from Director Doreen Cohn or student actors and crew, rising freshman on up, that they could handle the show. It was important to them, so they did their research, made their case for the rock musical and more than pulled it off.
“You kind of know who you have for a cast and we felt they could handle it,” Cohn said.
They took the production a step beyond what you see on stage, raising awareness about AIDS by dedicating the performances to the 100 scientists and researchers who died in the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 crash on their way to the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. The cast is also displaying their research on AIDS in the hallway at Avon High School during performances.
“RENT,” which first previewed off-Broadway the night after its creator Jonathan Larson died of Marfan’s syndrome at age 35 in 1996, according to IMDB.com, centers around the struggles young Bohemians in New York face during that time period. As the characters battle hardships including AIDS, drug addiction, poverty and trouble paying rent, they push for their voices to be heard and make a stand against “the man” while trying to manage relationships and preserve their community. And, yes there are homosexual characters, as well as a transvestite and an exotic dancer. Call it controversial, but the characters are really just people trying to make ends meet and find meaning in their lives like anyone else as they defy the idea of labels and show raw human nature in their seemingly unconventional lifestyles.
And as controversial as “RENT” was when first released, the teenage cast isn’t bothered by it. Cohn said that “since these kids have been born, AIDS has pretty much been under control” and homosexuality is common place, so the content in the show doesn’t seem extreme to them.
It’s a period piece.
“We’re teaching them about the times,” Cohn said.
Still, as show weekend approaches, Cohn said “I can’t believe we’re actually doing this show.”
And after hearing the strong vocals and seeing the passion in the acting from the leads to ensemble, there is no doubt that this show is indeed happening. The powerhouse rebel rocker singing of Cole Petano (Roger), the sweet serenading of Abigail Inglis (Mimi in Cast 2) and the warming voice of Tahari Gordon (Tom Collins) in particular stand out.
So does Erin Rineheart, who was the most believable in her portrayal of the spunky, flirtatious Maureen with her confidently, expressive singing and dancing.
Devon McLane, who plays Angel in some of the performances, had perhaps the most challenging feat in playing a transvestite character, but he handled the part with grace and captured Angel’s kind heart and free spirit elegantly.
Cohn, who is retired after many years as Avon High School’s theater director, said that this year’s Avon Summer Theater production is double cast, giving multiple people the chance at a lead part. The actors are from Avon, Canton, Farmington and West Hartford and Hartford.
“It’s like a melting pot of all towns,” Cohn said.
She often chooses ensemble-heavy musicals to feature more student actors, making it the ultimate learning experience. There was also limited space at the high school for set building, so Cohn wanted a play that had few set changes and a main unit that stays on the stage for the duration of the show. “RENT” met the criteria.
The school version of “RENT” cuts the more explicit songs and language. The relationship between same-sex couples in the youth rendition is more about their bonds and support for each other than physical love. For instance, none of them kiss, but they do hold hands.
No drug use is shown in Avon’s version, but the issue is implied with the neediness and anguish shown in the acting of the ensemble and Mimi (Inglis) in response to the presence of a tiny bag of powder.
AIDS is addressed in songs and dialogue more so than visual suffering, with the exception of a couple scenes involving death, a near-death experience and an “AZT break” during one of the songs.
The actors capture their characters’ sexuality in their attitude, the way they move and dance without making it lewd.
The orchestra/band is on stage, making their music every bit a part of the community of “RENT” as any of the characters.
The movie that the character, Mark makes in “RENT” was actually shot and edited by Avon Summer Theater veteran Amanda Pratt, of Farmington. She is studying film in college and used a camera with 8-millimeter film to give it the vintage look. The film is projected on the wall at the end. Pratt played Maria in last year’s production of “The Sound of Music.”
The cast handled the content of the show tastefully. You leave it forgetting why it was controversial in the first place and at the same time embracing it as it raises awareness about AIDS and other hardships people may face.
The show runs Friday and Saturday, July 25 and 26, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, July 27 at 2 p.m. at Avon High School. You can purchase tickets on the Avon Summer Theater website or at the door. General admission is $15 for adults and $10 for students and senior citizens. Reserved section tickets are $25.
More information is available at www.avonsummertheater.com.
View more of EntertainmentCONNeCT’s photographs of Monday’s dress rehearsal of “RENT” on Facebook. Search “CT Entertainment Connect” and like the page!
- Gabriel Mantilla, Hartford — Angel (Cast 1)
- Devon McLane, Avon — Angel (Cast 2)
- Bryce Neseralla, Avon — Benny
- Caitlin Culligan, Avon — Joanne (Cast 1)
- Sarah Walters, Avon — Joanne (Cast 2)
- Ryan Culligan — Mark (Cast 2)
- Kevin DosSantos, Canton — Mark (Cast 1)
- Erin Rinehart, Avon — Maureen (Cast 2)
- Inga Smith, West Hartford — Maureen (Cast 1)
- Abi Inglis, Avon — Mimi (Cast 2)
- Emma Webb, Canton — (Cast 1)
- Cole Petano, Avon — Roger
- Tahari Gordon, Avon — Tom Collins
Ensemble (homeless, police, parents, et cetera)
- Kelsey Beadle, Canton
- Megan Beauregard, Avon
- Rachel Beauregard, Avon
- Julia Canova, Avon
- Marisa Canova, Avon
- Kate Casner, Avon
- Elizabeth D’Arcangelo, Avon
- Hannah Davies, Avon
- Sadie DeBellis, Canton
- Emma Frawley, Canton
- Rob Laible, Avon
- Katie Pecora, Farmington
- Noelia Powell, Canton
- Ryan Sands, Avon
- Tatiana Rose Yevin, Avon