525, 600 minutes

Nicole Hennessy

Kent State is one of the first colleges to perform Broadway hit ‘RENT’

Cast members rehearse for the musical ‘Rent’, which opens tomorrow at E. Turner Stump Theatre in the Music and Speech Building. Shows will run through Sunday, Nov. 8. Brittany Ankrom | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

Two rival teenage street gangs of different ethnic and cultural.

“Stop – we’re not gonna do ‘West Side Story,'” professor Terri Kent exclaimed as she found out the news via BlackBerry. “We have the rights to ‘RENT’!”

Set in the late 1980s in bohemian Alphabet City (a neighborhood in New York’s East Village), eight young artists struggle with love and drugs beneath the veil of the AIDS epidemic.

A gay anarchist, a drag queen street percussionist, a junky stripper, a musician hoping to write just one last meaningful song before he dies, a lesbian public-interest lawyer, a landlord and a bisexual performance artist tell their stories to the lens of a documentary filmmaker’s camera.

When the production debuts Oct. 30 in E. Stump Theatre, the audience may have to open their minds.

“It’s not Shakespeare,” joked Carson Ross who plays Benny, the landlord.

Ross and his fellow cast members rehearsed more than 20 hours a week to assume their roles. Donning leather jackets, blowtorches, patent-leather boots and leggings, they are transported back two decades.

Performances of ‘RENT’ at E. Stump Theater in Music and Speech Center

&bull 8 p.m. Oct. 30, 31, and Nov. 4, 5, 6, 7

&bull 2 p.m. Nov. 1 and 8

&bull Tickets are $8 for students and $16 for adults

The steel set lay exposed on the stage.

As they run through Act I, she criticizes nearly every movement and voice inflection.

“I think it’s a really important piece,” she said. “It changed so much of how we look at musicals. It changed how we sing musicals.”

The songs in the show are rock ballads, which give a melodic appeal to the characters’ often dismal struggles.

“Vocally, it’s so demanding and challenging,” Kent said. “It really shows the training they (the students) are getting here. The depth of these characters, their struggles and their transformations are amazing acting roles.”

Though Kent had never seen the play, only the movie, she said that, “in a way, that’s good because we’re not doing the Broadway production – we’re doing the Kent State production.”

Kent is one of the first universities to get the opportunity to perform “RENT.”

“A lot of people go in with the views of how they’ve seen the show,” said Miriam Henkel-Moellmann, who plays Joanne, the sassy lesbian lawyer. “I hope we’re portraying it accurately and people can see that struggles can be overcome and things can be fixed.”

In a little over two hours, the show covers “five hundred twenty- five thousand six hundred minutes” – totaling a year as well as the main song in the production – of these characters’ lives.

“They’re all artists; they have an addiction they can’t fulfill,” Henkel-Moellmann said.

Though the social commentary in this show is blatant, it is not entirely literal.

In the world of “RENT,” racist cops dressed in riot gear patrol the streets.

Dan Caraballo, who plays a cop, describes them as “very anti-diversity and very anti-drugs.”

“Everything in this show is expressionistic,” he said. “It’s not how reality really is.”

Henkel-Moellmann said she hopes the audience leaves with “an appreciation for the show and a better understanding of the AIDS epidemic.”

“I’ve learned that society can be very ignorant toward things they don’t know,” Henkel-Moellmann said. “If you give it a chance, you’ll like it a lot.”

Contact performing arts reporter Nicole Hennessy at [email protected]