Catholic school downplays angst over student musical's gay characters
Judge Memorial » Ogden pastor calls 'Rent' 'morally destructive and offensive.'
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Judge Memorial Catholic High's drama department raised the curtain Thursday night on the rock musical "Rent" despite criticism from some Utah Catholics and a priest offended by the play's gay characters.

The show is a tamed-down school edition of the 1990s Broadway hit about seven friends living the bohemian lifestyle in New York's East Village.

It is to run for five more shows this week and next at Judge, one of Utah's three Catholic high schools.

Sister Catherine Kamphaus, superintendent of schools in the Salt Lake City diocese, said she read the script at the request of Bishop John Wester, and she watched a dress rehearsal Tuesday.

"There is absolutely nothing that would be offensive," Kamphaus said Thursday. "It wasn't condoning the gay and lesbian lifestyle."

Rather, she said, the play shows friends forming a loving and caring community while facing AIDS and other challenges.

Wester declined to comment Thursday. Kamphaus said the bishop learned of the show when a priest complained two weeks ago. Wester considered canceling the run, she said, but ultimately left the final decision to her.

The superintendent praised Judge's use of the play as a springboard to teach about the Roman Catholic Church's compassion for outcasts, the sick and the hopeless.

Judge Principal Rick Bartman said the play is in keeping with the church's outreach to people in the gay community and those with AIDS.

"Church teachings are never compromised [in the play]," Bartman said.

The school edition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play became available last year, and it has been controversial throughout the country. One song, "Contact," and profane language in the original were removed for the school edition.

Some schools have canceled shows. Others have refused drama teachers' requests to stage it.

Judge is the only Utah school performing the play this year, according to the company that licenses the productions.

The Rev. Erik Richtsteig, pastor of St. James the Just Catholic Church in Ogden, criticized the play on his blog this week, calling it "morally destructive and offensive," and saying that it normalizes deviant behavior. He was at a retreat Thursday and unavailable for comment.

A number of Catholics chimed in on Richtsteig's blog. One wrote, "I am praying for the diocese of Salt Lake City. What a thing to have on its conscience as to allow this play at a supposedly Catholic school."

James Snow, campaign director for 40 Days for Life Utah, an anti-abortion group, suggested that the play's dialogue is "initiating young people into the unseemly subculture and fetishes of the homosexualist movement."

That's not so, Bartman said. "It discusses issues of homelessness, community, helping each other, helplessness and hopelessness," he added. "We felt it was a good, teachable moment for our kids."

The school's drama director, Darin Hathaway, the cast of 22 and the 12 stage technicians have been doing community service in conjunction with the play, according to the school's Web site.

Cast and crew also coordinated and planned the early October all-school prayer service during which prayers were offered for those dealing with poverty, disease and violence.

Bartman said he has had 10 phone calls and e-mails from people objecting to the play, but not one negative comment from students and parents in the Judge community.

kmoulton@sltrib.com

'Rent's' run

What » Rock musical "Rent -- The School Edition."

When » Saturday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., Thursday at 7 p.m., Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. and Oct. 31 at 7 p.m.

Where » Judge Memorial Catholic High, 650 S. 1100 East, Salt Lake City.

Cost » $8 for adults, $4 for students and seniors.

More information » Go to http://tinyurl.com/ykmabl3