I should tell you, I should tell you
This is a review that no one asked me to write, but I'm pretty sure that almost no one is writing any reviews about the San Marcos High School production of RENT: School Edition. I'm just here to help.
I should tell you, I should tell you:
It may have been one of the most progressive things I've ever seen happen in this town.
Now, before I get into all of my hot takes and insights on the performance I saw on Friday night, I want to back up and offer a little context. Actually, you might pause here and go take a bio break, get yourself a drink and a snack, and come on back to snuggle in and read this. Buckle up.
I had truly intended to have this blog posted early in the morning on Sunday, but after getting my head hit very hard by the boom during my sailboat race yesterday, I've actually done a lot of sleeping. That’s right. Essentially, you're reading a review written by a concussed person, probably. Now, mind you, I saw the show on Friday night, before getting my skull whacked. And I took a lot of notes once I got home because I forgot my pen at the show. In all honesty, I have never seen any version of RENT before, but I knew that I was behind the curve. I knew that it resonated with queer audiences in particular. I knew it was written by Jonathan Larson. I knew that the night before his rock musical was to be workshopped that Jonathan Larson died suddenly. I knew all these things because I had treated myself to a night of a fancy bathtub dinner while watching “Tick, Tick Boom!” streaming on my laptop that rested on the closed toilet lid, viewable from my Epsom salt soaking. I sipped on chilled wine and dined on stuffed salmon, grilled asparagus, and kale salad after a cold night of roller skating at the Peppermint Parkway for my gig performing in the winter wonderland experience at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin. It was after one of my last nights on set, after a month-long run, and because my boys were away at their dad’s, I decided to treat myself to a night of musical dinner theater, in my bathroom, in the tub. I love being a modern woman!
I must admit, however, that this was truly my first introduction to Jonathan Larson's work. I had never seen any of his musicals, and I did not know much about him. I had been drawn to the movie adaptation of “Tick, Tick Boom!” because I understood that it was directed by or somehow connected to Lin Manuel Miranda. I had only recently come to know him through my family's viewing of Hamilton on Disney Plus while we were sheltered at a friend's house when our home flooded during the winter disaster. I fell in love immediately with Hamilton, and I began to gobble up information about Miranda and his work. I took the boys to see “In the Heights” at the movie theater the night it opened. I also finally saw Encanto. I'm not very well-versed in Broadway. I've seen Spamalot, Avenue Q, The Book of Mormon, and honestly, that's about it. I guess I could also count Sesame Street Live, maybe. The truth is that as much as I love the theater, I have not truly invested a good amount of time in seeing shows and studying them.
So, when I saw that a local High School production of the rock musical, RENT, was happening for only $10 a ticket, I wanted to go check it out. I fondly think of the time that my high school boyfriend and I had gone on a cheap date to see a production of Steel Magnolias at another, rival High School and how I absolutely loved it! I've also very much enjoyed the fifth grade musical productions at our local elementary school. (This is basically the extent of my theater-going.) Actually, I remember the first year that they'd begun doing the 5th grade musical productions. It was Lion King: The Musical. There was a child who got the lead as Simba, and I've actually watched him grow up in our community as a thespian, and now, he was one of the leads in RENT! Gosh, I love my Village!
I really do LOVE my Village.
But, I should tell you, I should tell you: It ain't that progressive here.
See, I am actually a graduate of a program called Leadership San Marcos. It’s designed to cultivate leaders in our community, and over the course of two years, a class of leaders attends educational workshops about different aspects and inner-workings of our town. The leadership class is also charged with identifying a service project for the entire class to give back something to the local community. This was back in 2012 when I was in the program. Almost 10 years ago. LSS--A couple of members of my cohort and I put together a service project proposal where we would implement a program called “Hate Free San Marcos”. Our concept was essentially like that of the Allies program that I had already been a big part of on the Texas State campus. It included education and training as well as a placard program where faculty, staff, and students that were trained as Allies of the LGBTQIA community could display a small rainbow placard indicating that they were a safe space for students to be who they are. Our proposal was to extend a similar program into the community and local businesses, particularly those adjacent to campus and downtown.
Having worked in higher ed for many years at that point, I realized how shielded I had been and came to better understand what “University bubble” meant. It was eye-opening to me the amount of homophobia and transphobia that ensued and was directly articulated from the organizational leadership as well as from other class members within my cohort. We were told that a program like this was not considered to be “leadership” or “service”. The most devastating part to me was the ugliness that I witnessed being exhibited from the so-called "leaders” of my village. It was truly upsetting to realize how close-minded the good ol’ boys still were. Yet, they were still in charge. I still shake my head about it to this day.
So, in seeing that the local high school (in conjunction with a middle school) was actually putting on a production of RENT, and my knowing only that it was queer inclusive…well, I knew I had to go see it with my own eyes and ears.
I mean, we have a bar in our downtown that openly discriminates against gender-nonconforming people! They have a policy that if your gender expression does not match your perceived gender, they will deny you admission. We had students protest outside of that bar chanting "We're here! We're queer! We don't want your beer!", and there was an article about it in the University Star. Unfortunately, the comment section below the article online were riddled with hateful statements by cis-het homophobic white men expressing how happy they were that there was a place that knew they could go to feel comfortable. *eyeroll*
In San Marcos, we’ve had posters with homophobic, racist, and anti-semitic slurs plastered in bathrooms in our cafes and at people's homes. We've had conservative students trying to usurp National Coming Out Day as their own by presenting their own special “coming out door” for students to “come out” as being conservative--An overt effort to trivialize the coming out experiences of our LGBTQIA community. We’ve had violence and hate crimes perpetuated in our town. So, like I said... I think it was the most progressive thing I've seen happen in this town.
Bravo to the kids who sang and acted their hearts out! Bravo to the kids who ran sound and lighting! Bravo to the kids who moved props and managed staging as crew members! Bravo to the faculty who made this happen! I still can't believe it happened!
For those of you wondering about my review, I'm getting to that.
For those of you who are well-versed in RENT who’re wondering how the heck they made it a school edition, I'm about to cover that too.
For those of you wondering if you should go see it, well, that's too late. The last showing was yesterday. So, this is not a review to drive sales. This is a review that no one asked me to do. But I’m doing it anyway. You’re welcome. Here's the bullet points:
Whoever did the Footwear or was the footologist/designer for the show should get mad props! The shoes in the show were fierce! *snap* *snap*
They did edit out words like dildos and masturbation, but seriously for the most part, it was the same scandalous, sexy, adult-themed show that RENT is known to be.
I forgot to mention that I went home after the show and streamed the movie version of RENT on HBO. So, I have a very fully formulated basis of comparison.
The student that played Angel, Isaac Leal, was an absolute machine! Every level of fierce…with incredible wigs, costumes, and of course, fabulous shoes! But, his portrayal of Angel’s health decline and eventual death due to AIDS was riveting.
The show was still gritty, and it's still covered the topics of AIDS, cocaine, sexual orientation, exotic dancing, Tango dancing, poverty, and Recovery. Not in that order.
They still sang about their baggage and being lovers, and they still included the La Vie Boheme piece where they dance on the tables in front of the businessman. What was left out to make it a “School Edition” is something I found very interesting…The part with the police violence was gone. The mentioning of the riots and the footage that Mark's character shot of the violence which led to his big break in television, is different. In the School Edition, the protestors are just mooing outside. The police violence portion is genuinely the only part that I seemed to notice was missing compared to the film adaptation.
OMG the student that played Maureen, Lucy Anderson, was absolutely incredible! Her depiction of the performance art piece/monologue that Maureen performed for the protesters was on-point and absolutely hysterical! I appreciated her use of props and headpieces, and I tremendously admired the energetic gumption fueling her performance. She radiated from that stage. Also, her duet with Cora LaCross who played Maureen’s love interest, Joanne, was basically one of the best parts of the show. They “udderly” belted out that song and nailed it!
I thought the crew members looked so tiny and wondered why they were so much smaller than the cast. I thought ‘is that how small freshmen are’? And then I learned that they used junior high students for the crew. That seemed to make more sense. I think that was very progressive and amazing to include middle schoolers in this production as well.
The audio was pretty bad. I get it though because that's what happened for my Holiday Slut-tacular show--our audio was trash. That's the thing that everybody heard about our show... they all heard that the audio was bad. But, just like we managed to make our little production work, these kids played through and overcame all the audio technical difficulties. It was amazing to watch them not be deterred.
The best singer in the whole show was Micaela Gutierrez. Hands down. Her voice is amazing! I hope she keeps at it.
At first, I thought Christian Young, who played Roger Davis, sounded whiny, but, when I watched the movie version, I realized that that's just how Jonathan Larson wrote this character. So, Christian did a really good job! And his boots were absolutely baller!
It was really hard to hear Tom Collins’ character, played by Terry Barnes. I know the audio was a factor and his songs were very low, but I wish I could have heard him better. He was convincingly tender as he played a comforting partner who was succumbing to the devastating effects of AIDS.
It was cool that they had two female-identified students playing male characters in the show. The protagonist, Mark, was played by Jillian Botello who offered quirky dance moves and powerhouse vocals. (They even played a short film representing Mark's documentary at the end! So good!) And the landlord, Benjamin Coffin, was played by Samantha Irwin. She really did pull off the quintessential douchebag vibe that I think she was going for in her character portrayal. It was fun to watch.
The show still has a stripper who is referenced as being tied up for work and who still does cocaine and experiences withdrawals, and Sophia Zavala played Mimi unapologetically and fearlessly.
I was impressed by the chorus and how they managed to have long extended fake conversations that looked genuine and real.
I thought it was very bizarre and lacking in covid-consciousness that they closed of 3 large sections off seating to force the audience to sit with limited seating closest to the stage rather than allowing space for social distancing. Actually, I’m a little miffed about that TBH. It would have felt a little safer with folks more spread out. What are they thinking? Is this why schools are having such a hard time keeping folks safe from COVID? Because they are not remotely trying to social distance indoors anymore? Ugh, I digress.
I’m so glad I was able to attend this show, and you missed out. It also made me feel old. The show is set from the year 1989-1990 (525,600 minutes), and it came out on Broadway in 1996--the year I graduated highschool. These kids were not even born yet! It was the equivalent of my generation performing a Vietnam-era show. It made me feel old. Old and very, very hopeful. What wonderfully brave and talented children we have in my village, and they are not afraid to make statements of importance. I can’t wait to see what they do next! Now, I'm off to watch Ozark.