Jonathan Larson didn't have high schoolers in mind when he wrote Rent, the rock musical that weaves together stories of AIDS, social unrest, transvestism and punishing poverty in down-and-dirty New York City.
But the central message of Rent — for which Larson was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize — is that, with the love and support of your friends, you can get through just about anything that life throws your way.
It's no surprise, then, that the teen actors in the 2013 Savannah Summer Theatre Institute program have embraced Rent, this year's big production.
Alex Burnette, who's playing Roger, came to Savannah from Powder Springs, an Atlanta suburb. "I live in a conservative community, so we would never, ever do a production like Rent," he says. "We did the 'school edition' of Aida, because they thought the full Aida was too risqué. And how that's possible is beyond me."
In Savannah, Burnette adds, "They don't take for granted the abilities of younger actors. It's exciting to be able to do something that's not dumbed-down."
When Savannah's Benjamin Wolfe began SSTI six years ago, he had no idea it would, over time, attract some of the most promising musical theater kids from around the country — and beyond (one "camper" this year, returning from 2012, is a resident of London, England).
"They're obsessed," Wolfe says. "These are die-hard theater kids. They can't get enough of it."
Wolfe recently left Hilton Head Preparatory School, where he'd run the performing arts department for four years. They produced and performed nine full musicals in four years.
"You always get kids who come out for the play, and they're on the baseball team, they have other priorities," he says. "But these kids, this is their priority. So the focus that you get is just incredible."
And focus, in the extreme, is called for. Once they've auditioned and been accepted into the SSTI program, the students — they're housed in Bluffton and ferried back and forth to the Savannah Country Day School campus — have just 15 days to learn, rehearse, block and present their show. Work on Rent began July 1.
It's intensive stuff. They work seven hours a day, five days a week, with 30 minutes for lunch and brief union-style breaks every hour and a half. Wolfe is the producer and director; there's a musical director and a choreographer, too.
There are talented kids who know and accept the drill. They are, according to Wolfe, "a melting pot of awesome."
Thaddeus Kaszuba, who has the demanding role of Tom Collins in Rent, is a junior at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. Last year, he was in the cast of SSTI's Legally Blonde.
"I thought the program, and everything they taught us, was really valid and is everything that I needed to help me progress in my school years," he says.
"And Rent is one of my all-time favorite shows. So I knew I had to audition for it."
It was a no-brainer, too, for Alex Burnette. "There's a level of professionalism that attracts me; going out of town to do a production that has some kind of budget to work with.
"It's getting used to doing this for a living, traveling and committing to a month out of your summer. And doing this with people who are planning to do this as a career as well."
Wolfe gives everyone in his company high marks. After all, they're hear to learn, and to interact with others of like mind. It's nothing like high school. There are no squabbles, no jealousies and no fights.
"Frankly, there's so much to do, there's no time," Wolfe laughs. "By the end of the day, they're too tired to fight."Where: Savannah Country Day School Jelks Auditorium, 824 Stillwood Drive When: At 7:30 p.m. July 19, 20, 26, 27; at 2 p.m. July 21, 28 Tickets: $15 adults, $10 students at savannahsummertheatre.com
Savannah Summer Theatre Institute: Rent
Where: Savannah Country Day School Jelks Auditorium, 824 Stillwood Drive
When: At 7:30 p.m. July 19, 20, 26, 27; at 2 p.m. July 21, 28
Tickets: $15 adults, $10 students at savannahsummertheatre.com