'Rent' - love it or leave it

Musical's story draws fire, support from community

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Keyonna Knight, playing Mimi, crouches while practicing a scene with Robby French, as Roger, during a Wednesday rehearsal of "Rent" at the Lake City Playhouse in Coeur d'Alene. The play has prompted some recent controversy in the community.

COEUR d'ALENE - For most shows at the Lake City Playhouse, ticket sales three weeks before opening night aren't strong.

Unless that production happens to be "Rent."

"We're generating ticket sales already," said George Green, Playhouse artistic director. "Our opening night is almost sold out."

"I anticipate 'Rent' will have a lot of full houses," he added.

"Rent" opens Jan. 13 and runs through Jan. 29. It's been the target of numerous letters to the editor in The Press, some critical, some in praise. There's been talk of protests and calls to pull the "degenerate musical." Others are urging people to see it, keep an open mind and maybe come away with a new perspective of another lifestyle.

The rock opera is based on Puccini's "La Boheme" that tells the story of "A group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggle to survive and create in New York's Lower East Side during the thriving days of Bohemian Alphabet City, under the shadow of HIV/AIDS."

In a nutshell, the plot follows the plight of gay men and women.

Characters include an HIV-positive musician and former junkie, a Harvard-educated lawyer and her lesbian lover, an HIV-positive drug addicted S&M dancer, an HIV-positive drag queen street musician/lover and a former member of the group who married for money.

"Rent" has achieved critical and financial success.

It was made into a movie. It won a Tony Award for Best Musical. It had a 12-year run on Broadway. It earned hundreds of millions.

But that's not what concerns some.

In letters to The Press, critics point out:

... the musical is a reflection of a group of gay and lesbians (one is a gay drag queen) and their fornicating interactions.

"I know that we are a wholesome community that would like to continue to bring God's benediction upon our city. Yes, we sympathize with the sick (HIV and otherwise) and we pray for them ... But, we do not need to support a musical that celebrates sin."

"However, nothing can change the fact that homosexuality is wrong and any vehicle which condones or evokes sympathy for homosexuality, explicitly or implicitly, is degenerate."

"Don't condemn ANYthing, else you are a hypocrite, since we all have faults. These are typical liberal positions that free them from being held to any standards - since they claim none. Life's easier that way." (in response to letters criticizing "Rent" critics).

A few in support of "Rent:"

"Some of the greatest and most successful people I know are homosexual or transgender. Love is love, no matter what the gender!"

"Whether we agree with the content of a theater piece, a piece of artwork, or even a cinematic work for that matter, we live in a country where people can choose to view it or not. I believe that the people of this community would agree that just because you disagree with something or it simply not your cup of tea, it does not mean that it should be banned or censored."

"Why don't we withhold judgment on anybody's motives until we have a chance to see this? Shouldn't we make it a point to see this play and THEN open a conversation about things in it that either moved us or made us sick."

Thoughts of directors

Green said he's long wanted to produce "Rent."

"I think it's a beautiful show," he said during an interview in his office at the Playhouse.

He recalled that before his wife took him to the musical for the first time a few years back, he was "skeptical" because he had heard the content was questionable.

"Halfway through the show, I fell in love with it. I broke down in tears about certain scenes, I was very moved by the production," he said. "I knew then at some point I wanted to produce it."

Troy Nickerson, director, said he wasn't a fan of "Rent" when it came out. He had lost friends to AIDS, he said, and the story line hit close to home.

"I had avoided it a little bit without even meaning to," the 46-year-old said.

But with this opportunity to direct "Rent," he now says "there's something about the show that's life changing."

Green and Nickerson said "Rent" is not about gay people. It's more about artists dealing with their struggles.

"It's a beautiful show about love, about compassion, it's about people of all walks of life," Green said.

"These are the people I want to party with," Nickerson said, laughing.

Not all agree.

Green has received phone calls and emails, questioning the selection of "Rent" for a conservative community like Coeur d'Alene, asking why he is promoting the gay lifestyle. He said there was a similar response on a smaller scale to last year's showing of "The Scarlet Letter."

"We're not proposing anything. We're not celebrating anything as a theater institution. We're reflecting society. We're showing you what's out in the world today. Whether you choose to see it or not is up to you as a patron and however you feel about it is up to you as a patron. We're not trying to force you to feel a certain way. We just want you to take something out of the show that triggers something inside of you as a human."

Nickerson, though, did say, "We're celebrating everything that 'Rent' is. 'Rent' is truly about people celebrating life in face of death."

When Green asked Nickerson if he would direct "Rent," he said there might be some contention in the community.

Nickerson was surprised, he said, because "Rent" has been around since the mid-90s. He doubted there would be any opposition.

"I'm saddened I wasn't correct, because truly whatever you're hearing, none of this has anything to do with 'Rent,' in my opinion."

The cast

Green said about 80 men and women auditioned for a handful of roles in "Rent." It was one of the largest tryouts at the Playhouse.

Many said they would accept any role to be in the show, which carries adult themes and language.

Green said the cast of "Rent" includes gay people, straight people, Christians, those of Jewish faith and school teachers, too. There are homosexual women and men playing straight men and women, and straight women and men playing gay roles.

"It's open and it's free and it's acceptance," he said. "It's a great story."

Christina Coty of Spokane, who plays Joanne, a lesbian lawyer, first saw "Rent" in the late 90s.

"It opened up my eyes so much. I was pretty sheltered growing up," she said.

The musical "intrigued" her, she said, and when she went into theater, "Rent" was on the list of productions she wanted to be in because its characters are dealing with real life situations.

"It's out there and you can't turn your back on it," she said. "You have to be aware of what's happening."

She admits she had some reservations about playing Joanne.

"I am a straight woman. I have to kiss a woman in the show, multiple times," she said. "That was a little uncomfortable, but it's acting and I'm so incredibly excited to be part of it."

If you go

Green said "Rent" will spark an emotion in those who see it.

"That's what art's going to do," he said.

Nickerson said "Rent" has been successful because it offers a compelling story and outstanding music. Performing it in the smaller, cozy confines of the Playhouse will make it more intense for the audience.

"You're going to be right there in it," Nickerson said

Bottom line, he believes "Rent" is "an amazing journey and it brings up amazing conversation."

And conversation about a show, good or bad, usually puts people in the seats.

"I have a feeling 'Rent' will be sold out for the whole run," Nickerson said.

If you go

Rent runs Jan. 13-29 at the Lake City Playhouse. Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson; Directed by Troy Nickerson; Music Direction by Zack Baker; Choreographed by Jillian Wylie and Troy Nickerson.

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