‘RENT School Edition’ at McLean High School Theatre Company by Yvonne French

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“Awesome.”

If there is one word to sum up McLean High School Theatre Company’s production  of RENT School Edition it is awesome, according to audience member David Parker, who was Music Director of the American Light Orchestra from 1967-1975.

“It is a difficult score and the singing is not easy, said Parker.”The dancing is good, the casting is great. Every time I come here I’m more impressed with what [Director Amy Poe] has done.”

The cast of 'Rent School Edition.' Photo courtesy of McLean High School Theatre Company.
The cast of ‘RENT School Edition.’ Photo courtesy of McLean High School Theatre Company.

The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning rock operetta by Jonathan Larson is based on Puccini’s opera La bohéme. RENT Student Edition follows a group of New York musicians and artists in the late 1990s as they drug out, wash up, sell out, or die of AIDS in a swirl of changing love relationships that take place in a cold loft in the East Village of New York City.

Senior Camila Alfonzo-Meza plays Mimi Marquez, an addict from the apartment downstairs who stumbles in and sings “Light My Candle” to award-winning actor Damian Leverett, a senior who plays would-be songwriter Roger Davis with a pained James Deansian expression, in the most dramatic role of the play, which he handles capably. Alfonzo-Meza is a wild but vulnerable Mimi as she teases Roger in “Out Tonight.” She acts naturally when she sings.

Senior Max Johnson plays the other character – Angel DuMott Schunard – who has AIDS. He embodies the role of drag queen with sad restraint, and the audience loved his campiness in “Today for You.” Baritone John Williams, also a senior, played HIV-positive Tom Collins, Angel’s boyfriend, who carries his weakening body into the loft in what is the most moving part of the musical. The students share sadness, and somehow, hope, with the audience in “Without You” and “I’ll Cover You (Reprise),” along with the award-winning company. This was the best part of the show for me.

Mark Cohen, a filmographer-friend who records the bohos, is played by sophomore Alex Stone, a strong singer with good stage presence who carries the show. Mark becomes one of the sell-outs when he joins a film syndicate. The other sell-out is Benny Coffin III, a former friend who now owns the building. Freshman Jack Posey portrayed him believably.

Distinctively-voiced Junior Nancy Pruett played Joanne Jefferson, and award-winning Senior Madelyn Paquette played Maureen Johnson, a performance artist who makes all kinds of strange noises to tell her off-the-wall story. If you go for no other reason, go for her utter wackiness.

The musical showcases the soloists and ensemble singers well. It is impressive how many numbers ended on a beat with no stray or lingering voices–the kind of ending where there is a half-moment of silence before the audience breaks into applause. The strains of organ, piano, guitar, and drums under Music Director Bobby McCoy were part of the reason.

Also in sync were the dancers, whose mix of gymnastic, ballet-inspired modern dance with the occasional can-can sequence is fun to watch, especially when they use sticks to swirl streamers around. Choreographer Marielle Burt with Assistant Choreographers Lily Spinelli and Amy Weinstock turn out lively numbers that make use of every inch of the stage, including a fire escape and baby grand piano.

The cast of 'Rent School Edition.' Photo courtesy of McLean High School Theatre Company.
The cast of ‘RENT School Edition.’ Photo courtesy of McLean High School Theatre Company.

The set designed by Max Johnson is dominated by Ben French’s floor-to-ceiling faux brick walls covered in real graffiti by Max Brando. Thanks to Props Master Patrick McCormick, Angel drums on a white bucket, the homeless set up a street market with VCR tapes, baggies of drugs are bought and sold, and the ensemble keeps time with cups clacking like a shell game. Hair and Makeup Designer Polina Tamarina is really good at braids and must have worked fast between scenes. Special effects by John Williams included lingering smoke and snow. Lights and sound by Max Lindsay and Josh Alvarez were professional. The costumes by Siena Richardson and Emma Paquette, who is also the Assistant Director, are like a color-block painting with orange, mustard and turquoise, evoking Santa Fe, where the characters longed to settle.

The young actors don’t even know how cool they are in portraying the time between the centuries, but they leave the audience feeling pretty cool to have been a part of it.

Running Time: Three hours with a 15-minute intermission.

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Rent School Edition plays at McLean High School Theatre Company at McLean High School Burke Theatre – 1633 Davidson Road, in McLean, VA. Performances are tonight – April 5th at 7:00 PM and tomorrow – Saturday April 6th at 2:30 and 7:00 PM. Reserved tickets are $15 for adults or $12 for students and seniors, and can be purchased at BrownPaperTickets, or at the door beginning one hour before the show.