Theatre group brings seasons of love to stage with 'Rent'

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Thanks to the late Jonathan Larson, just about everyone knows how many minutes are in a year. 

But if you’re one of the few who don’t know the answer is 525,600 — then this weekend should be spent at Lehman College as the young members of Riverdale Children’s Theatre bring the popular “Rent” to stage.

Written in the early 1990s as a way to reintroduce theatre to a new generation, Larson’s take on the classic 19th century opera “La Bohéme” has endured — and was something Riverdale theatre members had wanted to do for a long time.

“You know, this is our eighth year doing this, and we’ve had half of the kids for some time now begging us to do ‘Rent,’” said Becky Lillie-Woods, artistic director for Riverdale Children’s Theatre. “As they’ve become teenagers, they have been passionate about the musical and the message.”

“Rent” takes on the AIDS crisis head-on during a time between 1989 and 1990 when being diagnosed with HIV was an automatic death sentence. Set in Manhattan’s East Village, a group of bohemian friends fight gentrification, while simply trying to survive in Alphabet City.

The play itself was controversial in its time not only for its depiction of AIDS, but also because of its inclusion of openly gay characters like Tom Collins and Angel Dumott Schunard — the latter who spends much of the musical in drag.

While the Riverdale group is performing the “student edition” of “Rent,” the changes are mostly the removal of some adult language and the elimination of one song, Lillie-Woods said. Most of Larson’s original characterizations — including Mimi’s job as an exotic dancer — remain intact.

“When you actually see the show, it is about this group of friends that love each other,” Lillie-Woods said. “We run a children’s theatre company, and we have a lot of families involved, and I’d say we would rate ‘Rent’ PG-13. But that’s really due to the fact that some younger kids — like 7- or 8- or 9-year-olds might enjoy the music, but they’re not going to understand what’s going on.”

“Rent” literally captures society in a snapshot of time — a society that has changed quite a bit in the last nearly 30 years. And that was a time before any of its current children’s theatre cast was even born.

“It’s a whole new thing for them,” Lillie-Woods said. “It was hard for them at first to feel sympathetic for some of the characters until you understand what was going on back then.”

Part of the rehearsal experience for these young actors came with a visit by Kevin McCollum, one of the original producers of Broadway’s “Rent” production.

“He pointed out how special Jonathan Larson was, and when he tragically passed away after the formal dress rehearsal right before the show opened, it instilled in the cast and the producers that they had to make this something special, and that they had to pass on his message.”

The entire play is performed in song with minimal sets and directed by Derek Woods, the man behind many performances by the children’s theatre.

Performances start Jan. 18 at 7 p.m., and continue into the weekend with a Saturday night and two Sunday afternoon shows. Tickets are $15 in advance, or $18 at the door, and are available at RiverdaleTheatre.org.

“The teenagers in this group, they crave plays like this,” Lillie-Woods said. “They really want to do the stuff that makes them feel something, that is serious and that has a message.

“They’re getting all that and more with ‘Rent.’”

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