Rent, the Pulitzer prize-winning musical about struggling musicians and artists living in New York's Lower East Side during the early '90s AIDS epidemic, is a difficult show - vocally, physically and emotionally - for any seasoned performer to complete. Yet B.E.A.T., the theater workshop made up mostly of high school-aged students, is currently in the middle of a three-week-long run of the show at 2nd Street Theater.
The B.E.A.T. performance of Rent isn't just about the promising vocal and acting talents of the players, which it does have. It's more than that. With harassment of gay teenagers making headlines around the country and here in Bend, the message of Rent seems now, in 2010, just as timely as it did at its off-Broadway debut in 1996.
Written by the late Jonathan Larson, who died the week before its debut, Rent has been celebrated for its positive portrayal of non-stereotypical gay and HIV-positive characters and the seize-the-day message. A modified version of Rent, intended for high-school productions, was made available in 2007 and is the version currently being performed at 2nd Street. While this version omits one song and some curse words, the meat of the play remains and still features quite a bit of risqué material.
The B.E.A.T. cast, for the most part, pulls off the show well. Many of the cast members, including Danika Golombek (Mimi Marquez), Mariah Gilbert (JoAnne Jefferson) and Michael Stumpfig (Tom Collins) handled the material with power and nuance. And the cast was at their best during the powerful ensemble performances, including the show-stopping "Seasons of Love."
More important than the individual performances was the story itself, which had the audience on the edges of their seats. During a recent matinee performance, the nearly sold-out crowd was easily half children and teenagers. Before the show, many were texting or playing cell phone games with their friends. Once the show started, they were riveted. For example, a pre-teen boy sitting next to me actually told his mother how good he thought the show was.
I saw Rent in New York and while the B.E.A.T. show isn't Broadway, in some ways, it was more powerful. Quintin Mansfield, who plays the cross-dressing Angel Dumott Schunard, said, "It's been fantastic to have the opportunity to work on a show that's a little risqué. It's definitely something that Bend needs."
7:30 p.m. Thursdays - Saturdays, 2p.m. Sundays at 2nd Street Theater. Runs through November 28. See BEATonline.org for tickets and showtimes.