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‘Rent’ opens in Corona del Mar; students counter anti-gay protest

It was opening night and the 46 students who make up the cast and crew of Corona del Mar High School’s production of “Rent: School Edition” were scrambling through a hallway that doubles as a backstage for the school’s tiny student theater.

Hannah Lindt, 18, made last-minute tweaks Thursday to the costumes she spent months searching for at thrift stores, tearing apart and tailoring to fit just so. Sienna Petree, 13, put make-up on cast members -- a homeless person, then a junkie and a cross-dressing street musician named Angel.

Outside, all but one gate to the affluent Newport Beach school was closed. Guy Olguin, principal of Corona del Mar’s middle school, directed a staff of security guards in black uniforms. One guard was sent to wander the theater halls, another was positioned at the entrance to the stage, a couple were sent to the front of the school, and another headed to the open gate.

Ever since it was first proposed, the production of the modified version of the Broadway musical about artists struggling to survive in New York City under the shadow of AIDS has been mired in months of controversy.

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The show was nearly canceled. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the school, alleging that the campus fosters a homophobic and sexist atmosphere. A handful of members of Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, which is known for its anti-gay protests, vowed to come to the campus to demonstrate against what it saw as the godless enablers of homosexuality.

Ron Martin, the theater teacher and director, said he chose the production after a video appeared on Facebook showing Corona del Mar students using anti-gay slurs and after he overheard students using anti-homosexual insults on campus. He said he hoped the show would help teach students tolerance.

By midday Friday, the protesters had arrived. There were three of them, carrying signs that said, "[Gays] Are Beasts,” among others.

As they gathered on the sidewalk, several students came together in counter-protest on the other side of the street. Within minutes, more than 200 -- some wearing rainbow tie-dye shirts and holding peace signs -- stood sentry in front of the campus, clutching signs that said, “Support Love,” “God Hates No One” and “Love Is Not a Sin.”

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The students turned the protest into a mini-celebration, singing songs from the musical and breaking into the school’s own fight song. A couple ran through the crowd in swim trunks, with the words “God Loves Gays” written across their chests. One was wrapped in a rainbow-colored cloth. Another wore a handmade shirt that read, “Love Is Equal.”

At one point, several students ran across the street to stand near the protesters. They shouted, “God loves gays and lesbians too,” and waved their signs at passing cars. Minutes later, Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, and his supporters walked away, taking their signs with them.

Martin, the theater teacher who had hoped his choice in musicals might touch some students, came by for a few minutes. But he walked away quickly, fighting tears. “I’m proud of them,” he said.

Several cast and crew members stood nearby. In a few hours they would be at it again, tweaking costumes, applying makeup, rehearsing their lines and singing their songs for the second night’s show.

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com


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