Bloomfield High pays in full with production of ‘Rent’

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BLOOMFIELD, NJ — The curtain goes up tonight, Feb. 24, at Bloomfield High School on the rock musical “Rent.” Based on Puccini’s “La Boheme” and winner of the 1996 Tony Award for best musical and Pulitzer Prize for drama, the story focuses on a struggling group of bohemians living in New York City’s East Village during the onset of the AIDS epidemic; the musical has been praised for its LGBTQ themes. The production is under the direction of BHS theater teacher Brandon Doemling.

In an interview during the Feb. 18 rehearsal, Doemling said he had initially wanted to direct “Urinetown” but could not obtain the rights. “Rent” was his next choice. He was reluctant to produce this show because of what he saw as casting difficulties, most especially with the role of Angel, a drag queen. Unexpectedly cast was senior Marc Manapat, who has appeared in every BHS musical since his freshman year. With Manapat selected for the role, Doemling said his biggest problem was solved.

“I don’t know why, but we had an Angel sitting under our noses,” he said.

With Manapat taking on the role, “Rent” was headed for the BHS stage.

“The character of Angel has a certain physique and had to be really flamboyant,” Doemling said. “He’s a transvestite and the role requires a huge commitment. Angel has high energy, a positive attitude and is glamorous. It’s a hard combination to find.”

The singing requirements of “Rent” are also tough for students, he acknowledged. Like the opera it is based on, “Rent” is completely sung, and there are 40 numbers, not counting the finale. And because of its controversial content, most high schools do not consider staging it. 

“We also have the character of Tom Collins,” Doemling said of another tough casting choice. “He’s masculine, but gay. We decided not to say if the character is male or female.”

The role of Tom Collins will be played by senior Alisa Urgent. 

“These two students just blossomed,” Doemling said of Manapat and Urgent. “I can’t take credit for it.” 

After these roles were cast, Doemling approached Principal Chris Jennings and Superintendent of Schools Sal Goncalves, who gave their blessing. “Rent” will have a cast of 28 students, small for a typical BHS musical, which usually features approximately 35 students. There are eight boys in the cast. Cast members will be wearing small microphones to amplify their voices, no different from Broadway. The students will also be wearing singing masks, which are face masks slightly lifted from the mouth and lips.

“‘Rent’ is sung all the way through,” Doemling said, “but I don’t think of it as an opera. It’s a musical.”

The singing is difficult, but so is the musical accompaniment. Only paid professionals will be performing in the six-piece band.

“It’s unfortunate we don’t have a student orchestra,” Doemling said, “but the music is too difficult.”

Another challenge with “Rent” is the exposition, or the opening, which prepares the audience for the story to follow. Diction is always a concern for singers, but in pandemic times, so is being understood when articulating lyrics through a mask. Doemling has impressed upon his troupe that gestures will help to convey what they say, so they must use demonstrative body movements when necessary.

Taking a break from rehearsal, Manapat spoke about Angel and said the character is gender-fluid. 

“Angel is very creative and ecstatic, which I connect to very much,” he said. “The character is relatable. They bring light and happiness to the show, and that’s evident.”

But there is a characteristic Manapat does not share with Angel.

“I’m not much of a dancer,” Manapat said. “I’m fluid with my body, but they’re a born dancer.”

Urgent is similarly drawn to the Tom Collins character.

“He’s an anarchist and very smart,” Urgent said, “but he doesn’t make much of that part of his life. He lives day by day and tries to make people care about what’s really important. Personalitywise, we’re similar. We’re both chill. He’s always laughing and making people smile.”

Doemling is very much a taskmaster, evident during a rehearsal, and will take exception when given the ultimate compliment from an audience member, that a BHS student production “was just like Broadway.” 

“It’s not Broadway,” he said. “Those are professionals. But our goal is to make the audience do more than respond. We want them to say ‘wow.’ This comes from the show having polish. And that only comes from having done the work.”

“Rent” will be performed at the BHS auditorium on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Feb. 24, 25 and 26, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 27, at 2 p.m. An admission is charged. Now, go see the work.