W e were treated to an amazing evening of musical theatre on Friday night at McKim Theatre in Kimberley. The students of Selkirk Secondary School put on an absolutely outstanding production of the musical Rent. It is a difficult piece. It is also, as director Sven Heyde writes, “one of the most powerful works of modern musical theatre.”
The story, loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, follows artists living in poverty in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The show deals with difficult and important themes of human sexuality, AIDS, poverty, and homelessness, and the marginalization of the poor by the rest of society. Tough stuff! Important stuff! We may want to shove it under the rug, but we can’t.
It is precisely this which makes the show so powerful. In one song, the cast sings in an AIDS support group, “Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?” If you can feel at all, you cannot help but be affected by this plaintive plea.
One of the central characters is Angel, a drag queen. Here is a drag queen who knows how to live, fully and completely. She loves with abandon and embodies life in all its fullness even though she is dying of AIDS. Jason van Zyl was magnificent in the role, bringing a verve and confidence which mirrored Angel’s life–giving vision of what it means to be alive. Even as Angel dies near the end, her death binds the other characters even more closely together.
The narrator, Mark Cohen, is a filmmaker who tends to stand on the sidelines as he documents a year in the life. He wants to be an observer rather than a participant. Terek Flowers captured this exquisitely in his portrayal of Mark. Mac Ramsay as the struggling songwriter Roger brought a wonderful sense of the tormented artist to the role.
Brooke Janzer caught the essence of Mimi, the exotic dancer at the Cat Scratch Club. She’s a junkie and is also HIV+. The heartbreak of her life is that she only values herself through her body. She shows in microcosm what all too many people struggle with.
Courtney Crawford brought a perfect sense of timing and joie de vivre to her role as Maureen. At one point in her “performance piece,” she had the whole audience moo–ing quite robustly.
Drew Lyall’s portrayal of Tom Collins the teacher was spot on. Lyall and van Zyl captured the chemistry between Collins and Angel perfectly and courageously.
The whole cast was terrific. The band was tight. These are well–known musicians in our area: Kaley Wasylowich on keyboards, Jim Cameron and Allison Stoddart on guitars, Janice Nicli on bass and Sven Heyde on drums. They supported this young cast and helped them shine as they brought this very difficult and contemporary musical to life.
Jonathan Larsen, the lyricist and composer of Rent, wrote, “In these dangerous times, where it seems the world is ripping apart at the seams, we can all learn how to survive from those who stare death squarely in the face every day and [we] should reach out to each other and bond as a community, rather than hide from the terrors of life at the end of the millennium.”
Kudos to Sven Heyde for his courage in putting the musical on. It was a huge risk—yet Rent shows us again and again that life cannot be lived without risk. How do you measure life? In seasons of love.