By Zach Hagadone
Fans of Broadway musicals will already be familiar with Rent, the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning work by Jonathan Larson. The production as it has appeared on the biggest stages in the country is an intense exploration of the physical and emotional lives of a group of artistic friends as they navigate the Lower East Side of New York amid the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the late-20th century.
Given that, it may be surprising that a troupe of nine eighth-grade students at the Sandpoint Waldorf School have undertaken to present three performances of Rent at the Panida Theater on Friday, May 6 and Saturday, May 7.
Under the direction of Michael Seifert — who has been the students’ teacher since they were in first grade — this version of Rent has been specially adapted from a “school edition,” dialing back or reinterpreting many of the most mature themes to arrive at what Seifert described as “a message that’s incredibly deep” and every bit as resonant for 14-year-olds as it is for adults.
Specifically, he said, “The theme is still compassion and acceptance of people — that people make mistakes and are we focused on the mistakes that people have made, or on accepting and loving people who are trying to make their lives better?”
The students have thrown themselves into learning their parts, rehearsing since the beginning of the school year with a special emphasis on the musical components. Seifert said “we’re just a normal class — this is not a drama school,” but, with help from Music Conservatory of Sandpoint Theater Arts Director Sarah Caruso, the students have “received an incredible training.”
Nathan Baker will provide live accompaniment on bass, but otherwise the young actors will perform their melodies over backing music from the Rent songbook.
When selecting Rent for the class to perform, Seifert said his primary concern was finding a musical “that can speak to them.”
And despite the maturity of the source material — even with its more age-appropriate adaptations — the performers have found much to identify with.
“We prefer as adults to stick our heads in the sand and hope that our kids aren’t going through some of these things, but they are actually living it and all the questions are coming now — ‘Who am I?’, ‘Where am I going?’,” Siefert said.
“Do we help them by pretending [those issues and questions] aren’t there? Or do we have a way — like in a drama — where we can work it out, as opposed to having to navigate a really difficult landscape completely alone, which is really scary,” he added.
As an educator, Siefert has a front-row vantage point on the mental and emotional health challenges faced by today’s adolescents, and said what they need are “adults and stories that are willing to meet them where they are, and that’s what I feel we’ve been able to do here. Ultimately, it’s a story about hope.”
Rent — School Edition • Friday, May 6, 7 p.m.; Saturday, May 7, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; $15 adults, $5 youths. Panida Theater, 300 N. First Ave., 208-263-9191, panida.org.
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