YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – A central theme of “Rent” is the struggle by young artists to survive on their meager earnings from the beauty they create.
It’s a challenge that most writers, actors and musicians have known.
Fortunately, a production of the landmark rock musical by some of Youngstown’s top performance companies will have no such struggle.
The cast and creative team, led by director Matthew Mazuroski, music director Joe Spurio, and guest artist conductor-keyboardist Michael Moritz, is rich with talent and boasts years of collective experience. Performances will be April 27-30 at Powers Auditorium.
While the look of the stage will be sparse – it reflects the bare-bones amenities of young artists squatting in an abandoned building in New York – the production values will be professional caliber. Moritz, a music producer and director in New York who also owns a theatrical services company, is providing sound and technical equipment to ensure the finest sound and stage effects.
A Boardman native, Moritz is a Tony Award winner (Best Musical, “Hadestown”), who has also received multiple nominations for Grammy, Emmy, Tony and Olivier awards. He has worked on Broadway for the past decade and also with renowned orchestras. As a music producer, he has worked with stars ranging from Josh Groban to Gwen Stefani and Audra McDonald to Stevie Wonder.
The rest of the creative team includes Johnny Pecano, set design; Joanna Andrei, choreographer; Robert Joki, costumes; and Ellen Licitra, lighting. Hazy Jordan and Christina Kopocsos are stage manager, and assistant stage manager, respectively.
The production team, led by Stambaugh Auditorium, includes the DeYor Performing Arts Center, Opera Western Reserve, The Youngstown Playhouse and Youngstown Symphony.
With book and lyrics by Jonathan Larson, “Rent” is that rare musical that has developed a fanbase over the years – if not an aura. It’s been seen by millions worldwide and was made into a film in 2005.
The story, loosely based on the Puccini opera “La Boheme” (1896), is widely known.
With the production values solidified, director Mazuroski turned his focus to the human element. Toward that end, he assembled a cast that he says will impress audiences with their singing.
“The quality of the rock vocals is outstanding,” Mazuroski says. “It’s a rock opera and getting the human element as close to the audience as possible is important.”
The director has never seen “Rent” – the musical or the movie – and has no intention of doing so because he wants to make it vibrant.
“I’m trying to steer clear as much as possible from remounting the Broadway show,” he says, admitting there are some scenes where that’s unavoidable.
“There are [fans] who know this show backward and forward but a lot who don’t,” he continues. “It was a phenomenon in the ’90s. A lot of our cast members are real fans.”
Auditions drew a huge turnout, with close to 50 actors trying out. Nineteen were selected for the cast, including the eight main characters: Connor Bezeredi (Mark), Nick Kerpsack (Roger), Kage Coven (Collins), Wayne Bonner III (Angel), Kylie Davis (Mimi), Grayson McCrory (Joanne), Shiloh Hart (Maureen) and Nate Beagle (Benny).
The ensemble is Joanna Andrei, Ben Boten, Frank Carsone, Carolyn Colley, Nikita Jones, Ashley Milligan Smith, Robert Brandon Runnion, Mitchell Sharp, Emelia Sherin, Tyler Stouffer and John Weber.
While the characters face multiple hardships – AIDS, money, acceptance – the struggle between commerce and art is at the heart of the show, Mazuroski says.
“Critics have talked about this struggle,” he says. “How do we value art? The Bohemians have always been on the outskirts of it, especially in America. These young idealists are hitting the harsh reality but still want to create beauty and meaning that is lasting.”
The set will capture the urban grit and grime associated with “Rent,” with exposed brick walls, graffiti and the trappings of construction work. Multiple levels of scaffolding on stage will provide space for action, with a six-piece rock ensemble beneath it.
Kerpsack, who plays Roger, says the role is a natural one for him. The Austintown native and YSU grad has done shows with Easy Street and the New Castle Playhouse, although not in recent years. But he does perform in the Decades band, a Valley-based outfit that plays covers of hits from the ’50 to the 2000s.
“I play in a band, so the storyline of Roger fits me perfectly,” he says. Kerpsack plays the guitar in some scenes.
“Rent” premiered in 1994, an era marked by the AIDS crisis, and it features characters who are in the LGBT community. Those elements made it a trailblazer because it portrayed lifestyles not usually seen on stage at the time, Kerpsack says.
“It tells the story of a group of characters who are all different but all the same,” he says.
Guest artist Moritz has a long history with The Youngstown Playhouse, where he served as music director for years before moving to New York. He returned five years ago for a concert at the Playhouse, and last year for master classes at Youngstown State University at Mazuroski’s request.
Moritz has extended a standing offer to leaders of the Youngstown theater company to help whenever he can.
“When I found out that [Mazuroski] was involved with ‘Rent,’ I thought it would be fun [to perform in it] and that I could also assist them in boosting ticket sales,” Moritz says.
He will only be in town for the four days of the show, so he is bringing with him a couple of musicians he often works with: fellow Valley natives Billy LaGuardia and Adam DeAscentis, both of whom also live and work in New York. “I’ve worked with them for 15 years,” Moritz says, going back to his Playhouse days. He also selected three local musicians for the ensemble.
Moritz is lending the production 12 cases worth of sound and stage technical equipment to give the show a professional sheen.
“I’ve never done ‘Rent’ before, but I have worked with many of the original Broadway cast members on side projects,” Moritz says. “It’s a sung-through show, two solid hours of music, and [the Youngstown production] will sound exactly the way it would if it was a Broadway touring show.”
Jim Spurio, the music director, notes that the band will be incorporated into the set on stage.
“It’s largely a rock band setup, and [Moritz] will act as conductor and set the tempo,” says Spurio, who recently received a master’s degree in conducting from the Dana School of Music. He is the music director in residence at ACTS Theater of Sharon, Pa.; assistant director of the Shenango Valley Chorale; and music director at St. Patrick’s Church in Hubbard.
“Rent” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. April 27, 28 and 29; and 2:30 p.m. April 30, at Powers Auditorium, 260 W. Federal St., downtown Youngstown. Tickets range from $17 to $35 (plus applicable fees) and are available at ExperienceYourArts.org, by phone at 330 259 9651, and at the DeYor Performing Arts Center box office, 260 W. Federal St.
Pictured at top: The cast of “Rent” at Powers Auditorium includes (center) Nick Kerpsack, with guitar, and Kylie Davis; and (clockwise from lower left) Connor Bezeredi (with camera), Grayson McCrory, Shiloh Hart, Nate Beagle, Wayne Bonner III and Kage Coven.