Love and let live

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 November, 2010, 12:00am

Given the sell-out success of past Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation musicals such as Bugsy Malone and Disco Inferno, HKYAF founder Lindsey McAlister would be forgiven for resting on her artistic laurels and putting on another failsafe, family-friendly show. But McAlister, who set up HKYAF in 1993, is never one to shy away from a challenge - this year, she has chosen to put on the Pulitzer-winning musical Rent.

A modern-day version of Puccini's La Boheme, Rent is a somewhat controversial choice for a youth theatre production. Set in New York City, the story follows the highs and lows of a group of artists living a bohemian lifestyle. The controversy comes from the issues dealt with - they include homelessness and the effects of HIV/Aids - and the fact these are not everyday concerns for the average Hong Kong youngster. Fortunately for audiences of the upcoming show, this didn't daunt the production team.

'We wanted to do something with a message that would be edgy and appeal to a cast of slightly older 'youth' YAF works with: young people up to the age of 25,' McAlister says, adding that the cast is very mature in their approach to the material.

'As an actor, the challenge is to take on a role that is very different from who you really are. Many times as a performer you are playing a character that is experiencing things unfamiliar and 'out of character'.'

As with previous shows, the script has been adapted to make it more accessible to local Hong Kong people.

'YAF works with over 800,000 young people every year, and around 94 per cent are local Chinese students, so when we stage a show, we always have an element of Cantonese,' says McAlister, adding narrators help to explain what's said in the English language songs.

Although some may argue that a local Hong Kong audience may not relate to the gritty tale, the director says at its most basic, Rent 'is about love, loyalty and courage; I think most people can relate to one or more of the themes. The show is about people overcoming adversity - it's an empowering show that celebrates life.'

The 50 young members of cast may never go through the hardships experienced by the characters, but they echo McAlister's sentiments.

Jessica de Borja plays Maureen, a character she describes as 'over the top and a major drama queen'. De Borja say: 'the situations that the characters experience ... may seem unlikely to happen to Hong Kong youngsters, but at the core of it are individuals trying to find their place in the world and fight to be accepted for who they truly are.'

Those situations were actually what attracted some of the cast members to audition in the first place. 'I really wanted to break out of my comfort zone and explore experiences different to my own sheltered, Hong Kong upbringing,' says Allira Wilson, who plays Mimi. 'The story has really opened my eyes to ... the hardships of - and the values celebrated in - the New York bohemian lifestyle.'

Despite its serious themes, the show - and this incarnation - have been immense fun for everyone involved. For some, that fun has come from portraying their character: Jessica Peralta plays Joanne, the one character in the mix with a 'normal' job - which in itself is, as Peralta puts it, 'avant-garde'. 'It's a lot of fun playing a powerful, confident woman who's comfortable with who she is and isn't afraid to show it,' Peralta say. 'This experience has taught me to keep an open mind.'

David da Costa, who plays Collins, has been performing since he was a toddler, but he says working on this production still taught him new lessons. 'I've learned the level of commitment and discipline one needs to be able to put on a good, enjoyable show - not just for yourself, but for the people working with you.'

But David and his co-stars have no reason to worry about their performances - their director is delighted with their work.

'I am absolutely delighted with the cast,' McAlister says. 'I think this is the most talented, committed group of young performers I have ever had the pleasure to work with.'

Rent is being performed at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, November 25-27, 7.30pm (2.30pm matinee on Nov 27). Tickets are HK$220 (HK$250 for adults) from Urbtix.