By Bill Blankenship
None of the cast of Topeka High School’s production of Jonathan Larson’s epic rock musical “Rent” was even a zygote when it opened on Broadway and introduced a whole new generation of audiences to musical theater.
“Rent” was in 1996 what “Hamilton” is today.
The musical, inspired by Puccini’s “La Boheme,” tells the story of a year in the life of a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive and express themselves in New York’s Lower East Side while coping with the threat of AIDS at a time when an HIV-positive diagnosis was almost a certain death sentence.
Larson, who died suddenly at age 35 on the eve of “Rent’s” off-Broadway preview, was awarded that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Broadway production, which ran for 5,123 performances, received 10 Tony Award nominations, winning four, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score.
Several national tours, including one that stopped in 2004 at the Topeka Performing Arts Center, followed, and the 20th anniversary tour is on the road and slated to stop in spring 2018 at Wichita’s Century II.
While local theater troupes around the world have staged “Rent,” Topeka theater-goers have had only one opportunity to see the musical other than that one-night TPAC tour stop. In 2010, Washburn University Theatre and Helen Hocker Theater collaborated on a well-received production.
So Topeka High School is the city’s first secondary school production of “Rent,” and the announcement of it on the 2016-17 season drew “this huge ovation” at the annual May thespian banquet, said theater teacher Derek Jensen, who directs “Rent.”
“Some of the seniors were disappointed they weren’t going to be in it,” said Jensen, who said the students cast have remained “super-excited” about the show.
Because it deals with the LGBT community and HIV/AIDS, attitudes about which have changed during the past two decades, “high schools don’t do this script very often,” Jensen said. However, he said Topeka High School theater-goers “are fairly progressive on that front.”
Also because of the passage of time and advancement of treatment of the HIV virus, Jensen said during rehearsals he did have to remind the cast about the disease’s impact 20 years ago and tell the high students, “When they found out they had AIDS, they knew they were going to die and that automatically put them into a whole new mindset.”
The cast also met with some local veterans of the New York theater community to told them during the height of the AIDS epidemic that “50 percent of the theater community just diappeared” as a result of the disease, said Jensen, who said that conversation “had an impact” on the teen cast.
And while some of “Rent’s” plot are situational to its setting, its messages about creating a family stand perseveres in the face of adversity remains universal.
“‘Rent’ teaches us to cherish each moment of our life as if it’s our last, and to measure that life in love,” Jensen wrote in his director’s note in the program.
The core cast of Topeka High’s “Rent” includes roommates Mark Cohen (Peter Sandquist), a struggling documentary filmmaker and the show’s narrator, and Roger Davis (Adam Cole), a once-successful-but-now-struggling musician desperate to write on last meaningful song before he succumbs to AIDS.
Simone Cruz plays the ill-fated Mimi Marquez, the club dancer and drug addict who capture’s Roger’s attention, and who like him, also has HIV.
Mark, on the other hand, is still dealing with being dumped by Maureen Johnson (Isabel Ashley), a performance artist who dropped him for Joanne Jefferson (Aja Gamble), an Ivy League-educated public interest lawyer.
Another relationship develops between Tom Collins (Brayan Ortega), an anarchist professor with AIDS, and Angel Dumott Schunard (Lea Ramos), a street percussionist who is a transgender woman/drag queen who uses both she/her and he/him pronouns. She, too, has AIDS.
Samuel Mazas plays Benjamin “Benny” Coffin III, who once shared apartment with Mark and Roger but now is their landlord as he has married into a wealthy family involved in real estate. He is thought to have traded his personal morals for power and wealth.
Playing homeless men and women, junkies, parents and and an HIV/AIDS support group are: Lexy Baird, Ann Beall, Gabriella Dominguez, Keith Forshee, Mikoda Lancaster, Meredith Loehr, India MacDonald, Taliesin Rivera, Amber Schmidt, Alex Stewart and Tom Teeter.
In addition to Jensen, “Rent’s” staff includes:
- Musical director: Angela Dake
- Choreographer: Shauna King
- Technical director: Gregg Ratzloff
- Accompanist: Elaine Wellborn
- Costumes: Nancy Vega
- Makeup & sound: Jeff Kaufman
- Posters & photography: Josh Davis
- Properties: Deanna Cowan
- House manager: Kirsten Nelson
- Program: Heather
“Rent’s” crew are:
- Stage manager: Elle Schell
- Assistant stage manager: Wesley Rouch
- Makeup artists: Z’Mariah Lee and Isabelle Smallback
- Makeup crew: Taylor Fisher, Hannah Ortiz and Erica Silva
- Sound: Avery Byrd, microphone technician, and Brody Cunningham, sound board operator
- Lightboard: Michael Hurocy
- Spotlights: Elizabeth Emmert, Acacia Lowery and Will Mendez
- Construction crew: Dakota Bouton, Brody Cunningham, Charles Espinoza, Marie Harrop, Raven Lanir-Cook, Jordan Large, Jonathan Lee, Acacia Lowery, Kathryn Price, Thomas Rutherford, Hannah Scott, Angel Shaw, Kee’Andre Smith and Edward Sutton
- Costume crew: Alexia Hercules, Drew Hodgkinson, Nola Limon, Cassandra Ludlum, Tucker McCulloch and Arabella Smith
Props crew: Alayna Stevens, head, and Dylan Cochrane, Sydney Cook, Kianna Cornelius, Jordan Large, Venita Large, Lizzie Locke, Kara McClendon, Angelita Najera, Haley Piper, Angel Shaw, Itzel Vanessa, Katy Warden and Olivia Watson
- Pit orchestra: Ethan Coleman, bass; Clinton Gaskin, guitar; Noah Penrod, drum set; and Caden Ybarra, guitar
- House managers: Andrew Hodgkinson and Mazzy Martinez