Pioneer Valley Regional School presents ‘Rent’ March 23 to 25

  • Dominic Lewis in a scene from Rent at Pioneer. March 16, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

  • Dominic Lewis and Destiny Pezzuto in a scene from Rent at Pioneer. March 16, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

  • Dominic Lewis and Dana McRae, right, in a scene from Rent at Pioneer. March 16, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

  • Emma Worth and DaShawn Sadri in a scene from Rent at Pioneer. March 16, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

  • Dana McRae and Dominic Lewis in a scene from Rent at Pioneer. March 16, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

  • Dominic Lewis and Dana McRae in a scene from Rent at Pioneer. March 16, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

For The Recorder
Published: 3/23/2017 3:47:17 PM

“In these dangerous times, where it seems the world is ripping apart at the seams, we can all learn how to survive … and (we) should reach out to each other and bond as a community, rather than hide from the terrors of life …” — Jonathon Larson, composer/lyricist/book writer of “Rent”


A year ago, Pioneer Valley Regional School student Annalise Holesovsky of Leverett looked at her cast mates from “Grease” and had a vision. Recently exposed to the music and storyline of “Rent,” she saw her theater friends easily slipping into the characters of this Tony Award-winning musical.

“I just thought so many of us will be seniors and this would give us a chance to really get behind the messages of ‘Rent’ in a way that we were not able to with ‘Grease.’ I felt like Pioneer was ready for it, and the students were ready for it.”

Gaining support

While the students were ready for it, some administrators needed time and feedback from the larger community to embrace the musical, because the storyline and songs feature characters’ dealing with AIDS, sexuality, drug addiction, LGBTQ issues and death in raw and realistic ways.

Michael Duprey, acting principal at the time, and then new Superintendent Ruth Miller were unsure whether it was the right time to perform a potentially controversial musical. Initially, they were reluctant to support it.

Undeterred, Holesovsky and Dominic Lewis wrote a two-page email to Miller explaining why they wanted to do the musical, and encouraged her to check out some musical clips from the Broadway production and the 2005 film.

Miller requested a meeting with Holesovsky, Lewis and Elizabeth “Bizzy” Sweeney. She shared her concerns about the relevancy of the musical to the community, and wondered whether it would allow for younger students to be involved.

Miller also was worried that this musical might not excite a large enough audience to come and see it, but the three students explained why its inherent messages of inclusivity and acceptance were important. They said that they believed students would be capable of understanding and valuing the messages in the musical and the community would be interested in seeing it.

Swayed by the students’ thoughtful presentation, and willing to explore the proposal further, Miller asked them to survey the faculty. Holesovsky, Lewis and Sweeney presented the idea to all the teachers at a faculty meeting and through an anonymously written ballot process, were met with unanimous support.

Newly hired in late spring of 2016, PVRS Principal Jean Bacon was also wholly supportive and encouraged the idea of creating an educational component to the performances so that all students would benefit.

Desiring even more confirmation of support, Miller asked that parents of students be surveyed. With Bacon’s encouragement, Holesovsky sent out a letter to the community, along with a survey to see how they felt about this production, and 87 percent responded positively.

In late fall, students were told all hurdles had been cleared and the high school version of “Rent” could be performed in the spring..

Holesovsky said she had not realized that “it would be such a huge undertaking and how long it would take to make it happen.”

The musical is infrequently performed in high schools because of the storyline and lyrics. The high school version of “Rent” is not dramatically different from the original, except that some music and an explicit scene are cut to shorten the length.

The work the three seniors did to ensure PVRS could perform the school version of “Rent” demonstrates how controversial and provocative the material still is for people today, despite the two decades that have passed since the musical’s debut on Broadway.

High school theater departments across the country have cancelled plans to perform “Rent” due to strong opposition from administrators, staff and the community.

Understanding why PVRS students wanted to perform the musical, and gaining the support of students, faculty and the community was paramount to gaining administrative support.

Mandy Oliver and Kimberly Rose, co-directors of the production, are very proud of the initiative and work done by the students to have the show supported at all levels.

“We felt that while we were excited to take on the challenge of this show, and knew that we had the talent to make it happen, we knew that it could only happen if we had full support” said Oliver. “The students, in particular Annalise, worked very hard to make this musical happen.”


On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Pioneer Valley Regional School will perform “Rent.” The show, based on Puccini’s opera, “La Boheme,” features the lives of a group of young friends, artists and addicts living in the East Village neighborhood in New York City, in the shadow of AIDS and on the edge of poverty in the early 1990s.

The well- known story behind the musical includes the tragic death of the 35-year-old composer and librettist, Jonathon Larson, who died of an aortic aneurysm on the night of the final dress rehearsal two months before “Rent” debuted on Broadway on April 16, 1996. Larson had worked on the show for seven years and based many of the characters on his friends, the story lines on his own experiences, and the stripped-down set on his apartment and neighborhood. He had wanted to create his generation’s “Hair” and get the MTV generation — or those who loved rock music — into the theater.

“Rent,” for its two local high school directors, was a musical that has held significant meaning, so to direct it this year has been a dream come true.

Rose was able to see it for the first time during its 12- year-long run on Broadway in 1998 and, “it shifted her view of the world.”

Oliver’s mother wouldn’t let her see it initially because of the subject matter, but in 2001, when she was a student at the Berklee College of Music, she saw it in New York and has since seen it five or six times, and in 2010, she had the opportunity to play Joanne in the Ja’Duke production.

“The show has the power to change, open your heart and look at the world differently,” Oliver said. “It will help you to be more empathic. I feel ‘Rent’ represents who we are as people and teachers. Its messages are what we try to promote in our work with students, like kindness, inclusivity, caring for each other and the idea of carpe diem.”

In an effort to help the cast fully understand the history and culture of the early 1990s, a time when the AIDS crisis was constantly in the news, death rates were high and homophobia was rampant, Oliver and Rose had students watch documentaries, news clips and even invited professionals to come in to talk about addiction and drug abuse.

These educational sessions allowed opportunities for students to express their feelings, concerns and thoughts about the different topics and get some questions answered.

Emma Worth, a junior from Northfield who will be playing Angel, a drag queen who is often the voice of wisdom in the musical, said that the chance to explore AIDS, LGBTQ issues and, in particular for her, the stigmatization of addiction, all resonated with her.

“In the first month of rehearsals, I felt some division amongst the cast, which disappeared once we started exploring these issues,” she said. “I feel like the chance to talk about subjects that might not have been talked about before helped the cast connect. You never know what kinds of experiences people have had in their past and this allowed for that kind of sharing.”

Casting this musical presented some challenges for Oliver and Rose. In December, 38 students auditioned, including 12 seniors. “Rent” has eight lead roles, with a half-dozen smaller parts and an ensemble.

The directors had worked with many of the students before, so were familiar with their talents.

To include everyone, the directors double cast the leads and offered two casts. With two casts, a matinee time was added to the performances, allowing both casts a chance to perform twice.

“We knew that we had the talent to pull this off and the two casts allows for all to shine” said Oliver.

Casting required thoughtful direction, including helping to make some of the younger students be comfortable.

“We knew we needed the older students to play the leads” said Rose. However, one lead, freshman Destiny Pezzuto, cast as “Mimi,” was significantly younger than the others and had limited acting experience.

Holesovsky, who also plays Mimi, helps Pezzuto through some of the tougher scenes to make her feel more comfortable.

The directors said that happened a lot while rehearsing.

There was one scene with the “junkies” following the drug dealers, and the students thought the scene was supposed to be funny — which it wasn’t, directors said.

Other scenes, which involved cast members kissing each other, were also handled with directness and the opportunity to move quickly past the awkwardness.

“We worked on those scenes right away, before anything else, so everyone could get used to it, and with just those actors so there would be no build up and some privacy” said Rose.

The musical, which is almost entirely sung — like an opera — is especially challenging.

Eighteen-year-old Colby Johnson from Northfield, who plays Joanne and has been in many PVRS productions, says that “listening to other cast members sing with such excellence has inspired me to hit notes that I didn’t think I could hit before.”

Emma Langston, a senior from Orange and one of the two Maureens, says having another actor play her role has been influential.

“I can see Bizzy’s (Sweeney plays the other Maureen) energy and how she moves, and that influences what I do in a positive way. I feel like every part of me that is usually concealed can come out in this show,” Langston said.

DaShawn Sadri of Northfield, who plays Collins, is new to a PVRS musical.

“I was uncomfortable at first, but now I know the music — it’s really fun,” Sadri said. “Sometimes my voice doesn’t go where it needs to go, but I hope it will by the time we perform.”

He also likes his character because he said “Collins is optimistic,” and he and “Angel” (played by Worth and Maddy Tyson) “keep people together” in the storyline.

“The energy is different with two different casts, and having to change with different people can be awkward,” he said.


Oliver is responsible for the music and singing, while Rose focuses on the acting and stage blocking.

Jasper Tobey, a senior, as well as an experienced dancer, is the choreographer. Sets were borrowed from Ja’Duke, while costumes were ordered on line. Langston’s stepfather, Larry Anderson, will help out with the lights.

Rose and Oliver said they feel sentimental about this production, especially as so many in the cast are seniors and they’ve worked with the older students for many years and in many productions.

“They are a very passionate and talented group and we are very proud of them,” Rose said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better cast for ‘Rent.’ The show itself is giving them a sensation of being older and bigger than themselves, and a taste of autonomy of what they might feel in the future. It also is a way to truly celebrate their talents.”

“This musical is about accepting others, seizing the moments we are given and expressing love to others,” Oliver said.

Miller, despite being “nervous,” initially, about the material, has watched some recent rehearsals with Bacon and said she thinks the student “are phenomenal.” She said she now believes that “Rent’s” messages might resonate more than ever.

“In today’s current political climate, we probably need these messages promoted more — that we need tobe accepting of all people and this attitude is important to support.”

“I have never seen so much passion and energy before in one of our musicals,” said Sweeney. “It is so powerful and uplifting to be part of something that is unitingpeople. At the end of the day, anything you might be struggling with (it, life) might be OK if you are with people you love. That is what I have gotten from being in ‘Rent.’”

Holesovsky said she is thrilled with how the visionhas come together.

“I know I am going to be feeling a bunch of different emotions, and I need to appreciate those moments,” she said. “I want it to be really good so that the audience will really understand what it has meant to us to be able to do it.”

“Rent” will be performed at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 23, and Friday, March 24, as well as at 2 and 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 25. Tickets are $12, students and seniors $8. Call 413-498-2931, ext. 500, to reserve tickets. Pioneer Valley Regional School is located at 97 F. Sumner Turner Road, Northfield.


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