“Rent,” based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La bohème,” is the story of a group of young New York City artists struggling to get by. Hoboken High School’s production of the popular Broadway rock musical, cast entirely with local students, opens this Friday.
First introduced in 1994, “Rent,” created by Jonathan Larson, changed the plague in “La bohème” from tuberculosis to HIV/AIDS. “Rent” also openly focused on homosexuality. For a play in the mid-1990s, “Rent” was often thought of as edgy or even controversial. So for a high school to take it on, and try to keep the integrity of the musical, is impressive.
“The theme of ‘Rent,’ in my opinion, is not about sexual orientation or coping with AIDS,” said theater teacher and director Danielle Miller, “but rather about accepting each person’s differences through love, and that it does not matter how long you are on Earth but what you do with your time while you are here that matters most.”
She added, “It was not just the appeal of this message that attracted the kids, but how closely many of the characters and their struggles mirrored those of the students in our small, urban high school.”
Rent will run on Friday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 9 at both 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and on Sunday, Feb. 10 at 2 p.m. at Hoboken High School, 800 Clinton St. Tickets are $7 for general admission, $5 for students and $3 for seniors.
Meet the cast
About 50 students answered the casting call for “Rent.” While 25 were chosen, ultimately only about 17 could make the commitment, which meant not playing a sport or some other extracurricular activity. Cast members have been rehearsing five days a week since October. Since then, the eight leads have found their connections (and challenges) with the characters.
“The entire cast, through our discussions, has found ways they can all relate to the themes and issues that the show brings to the forefront,” said Miller. She also said that casting has to be very specifically timed and matched for the appropriate production. “You can’t have a ‘Grease’ without a Danny Zuko or Sandy.”
Chris Velez plays Mark Cohen, the narrator of the show. “We both have the same quirkiness,” said Velez, comparing Mark to himself. Velez said the challenge in playing the role is that Mark feels very lonely. “He’s alone most of the time, and I’ve never felt alone.”
Velez has been in plays since the third grade at Wallace School and said his mother pushed him toward doing something extracurricular. Recently, Velez was a finalist for his dramatic monologue in the Speech and Theatre Association of New Jersey (STANJ) competition.
Mark Cohen’s roommate is Roger Davis, played by Jaemison Yoon-Hendricks. The character of Roger is HIV positive and Yoon-Hendricks said he knows what its like to have a life-threatening illness, having battled leukemia. Yoon-Hendricks also plays the guitar like Roger and felt he was “fit for the role.”
As far as how they differ, Yoon-Hendricks said that he is much more understanding of stressful situations than the character he plays. Yoon-Hendricks aspires to work in film production after high school.
The exotic dancer Mimi Marquez, who steals the heart of Roger and also has HIV, is played by Ariel Cruz. Not only does Cruz take on a lead role, but she also acts as somewhat of a production assistant on the stage and does most of the graphic design.
“I took a digital photography class here last year and just kept teaching myself on my Mac,” said Cruz. Cruz has helped to design t-shirts, event tickets, and more. As for her character of Mimi, Cruz said, “We are both free-spirited.”
Cruz feels that the challenge of Mimi is keeping the honesty of her character, and the character is very deep. Cruz spent an entire summer researching the play and the role of Mimi. She credits former theater teacher Paula Ohaus for teaching her that “no matter who you are in the show, your part matters.” Cruz also said that she loves the spunkiness of the theater teacher [Danielle Miller] now: “She is always on task. This show means everything to her.”
Tom Collins, who is considered an anarchist, also has HIV and later moves in with Angel Dumott Schunard. Tom Collins is played by Jordan Yurnet. Yurnet feels that the show has lots of emotional highs and lows.
“The show is helping me to be more vulnerable,” he said. Yurnet also said that he feels the show is known so well that people are going to walk in with high expectations.
Angel Dumott Schunard is played by Jason Oliveras. Oliveras credits his sister as his inspiration to be who he is today. Oliveras has been performing in plays since he was 5 years old, some at Hoboken High School. Today, Oliveras plays flute, piccolo, clarinet, piano, and glockenspiel on top of performing in the theater.
Benny Coffin III, the ex-roommate who comes into money and tries to evict his own friends as acting landlord, is played by Angel Berrios Jr. He finds a lot of similarities between Benny and himself. Berrios has been singing since the age of four, inspired by Mariah Carey, and has been performing in plays since the fourth grade. Berrios’ favorite play so far was “Hairspray” in 2011.
Characters Maureen Johnson and Joanne Jefferson are in a romantic relationship, though Maureen is the ex-girlfriend of Mark. Maureen is played by sophomore Marina Wardell, who has been performing in plays since she was 4 years old in the Hoboken Charter School.
Wardell attended charter and private schools and loves Hoboken High School. She said the role of Maureen is the biggest role she has ever played.
Lastly, attorney Joanne Jefferson is played by Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks. Alexandra is the older sister of Jaemison by two and a half minutes. She finds her character to be very close to her own personality.
“She is happiest when in control, a control freak,” she said. Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks was also a finalist in the Speech and Theatre Association of New Jersey (STANJ) competition for her comedic monologue. She plans on pursuing journalism after high school.
The rest of the cast members intend to pursue a BFA in musical theater from a music conservatory, and many are interested in the theater program at Montclair State University.
Behind the production
As the director of the production, Miller oversees everything from casting to blocking to hiring Kristen Dziuba, music director. This is Dziuba’s fifth show at Hoboken High School.
Dziuba and Miller have two completely different backgrounds which complement one another. Miller, who followed casting and acting from Warren County to Manhattan, never thought of being an educator.
“I wanted to be like Paula Abdul and be a choreographer,” Miller said.
Dziuba, on the other hand, knew she wanted to teach music since she was 4 years old. Dziuba, who considers herself a musician first, works full-time as a church music director, has a degree in jazz performance, has opened for Chaka Khan, and has been gigging since the age of 11. “It would have been selfish of me not to have given back,” said Dziuba.
Miller feels very blessed today to be doing what she does. “I want to build the program and stay here,” said Miller.
Amanda Palasciano may be reached at email@example.com.