March 18 2010 12:00 AM

Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer winner addresses issues faced by Everett High School teens, says director


Lansing'sEverett High School has become the only school in Michigan’s lower
peninsula to perform Jonathan Larson's controversial rock opera, “Rent,” which tackles such topics as sexual
orientation, HIV/AIDS and drugs.But theater
teacher Jim Allen isn’t worried about a backlash: He has
school board approval, permission from parents of thestudentsinvolved and
rights to a school version of the production that is decidedly “toned down,” he
says, adding that these are issues that need to be addressed — even if it’s through song.

homelessness, poverty … that's what our kids are dealing with,” Allen explains.
“We have homeless kids at Everett, we have a huge poverty problem, there certainly
is the issue of drugs.”

Allen fell in
love with “Rent” while working on a production of it several years ago. But he
admits the original script and the film version of it are “pretty inappropriate for
high school students.”

Set in New York
City’s Lower East Side, “Rent” deals with eight friends as they struggle with
AIDS, love, loss and trying to find meaning in life. The original musical enjoyed
a 12-year run on Broadway, won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Best
Musical and was adapted into a film in 2005.

But outside of Broadway, performances of “Rent” have generated a fair amount of controversy — especially
when performed by students or in politically conservative areas. So when Allen heard of the
development of an approved "school edition" in January 2009, he jumped at the
chance to bring it to Everett.

The students,
Allen says, were equally thrilled. “The response from the kids was huge,” he
said. “We had great auditions. We had so many people turn out for it that we
ended up double-casting all the leads in the show.”

After clearing their
participation with the school board and parents, Allen is ready to move forward
with the performances, scheduled for 7 p.m. March 18, 19, 26 and 27 in the
school auditorium.

But in addition to entertaining, Allen hopes to educate the community about the issues
addressed in the musical. Representatives from the Lansing Area AIDS
Network, City Rescue Mission and Greater Lansing Food Bank will provide information at each of the performances, as well as visiting
classrooms during the weeks “Rent” makes a stop at Everett.

Allen hopes that the combination of art and
activism will spark conversation.

“I'm hoping to have people be more aware of
the issues that our young kids are dealing with,” he said.


7 p.m. Thursday, March 18, Friday, March 19, Friday, March 26 and Saturday, March 27

Everett High School, 3900 Stabler Street

$5 for adults, $3 for students.