Theater Review: ‘Rent’ Provides Proof of Region’s Talent

By J.E. Ballantyne Jr.

It’s Christmas in New York City’s East Village, where roommates Mark and Roger shiver in the cold of the abandoned building where they live with other struggling artists.

All of them are at the mercy of their landlord and former friend Benny, who will throw them out unless they pay overdue rent.

This balancing act between creating art and surviving is the basis for the Jonathan Larson rock opera “Rent.”

A collaborative production of the landmark musical – presented by Stambaugh Auditorium, Opera Western Reserve, Youngstown Playhouse and the Youngstown Symphony Society – opened Thursday at Powers Auditorium.

It sparkled in every respect from the talent on stage to unseen talent backstage. It was proof positive of the extraordinary professional talent in his area.

Connor Bezeredi (Mark) and Nicholas Kerpsack (Roger) carry a great portion of the show as the script is built around their characters. Both actors fill their roles with gusto, giving the show a strong opener with “Tune Up #1 and 2” and then again later with “What You Own.”

Bezeredi makes Mark a driving force throughout as he refuses to let dire circumstances divert his attention from documenting the struggles of his friends. But Bezeredi’s versatility with the character comes into play in Act II as he struggles with a job offer that threatens his original intentions.

Kerpsack packs just as much of a wallop as Bezeredi, but Roger is a bit more complex than Mark. A very conflicted character, Roger turns more corners and goes down a few more paths than does Mark, and Kerpsack handles each part of the journey with aplomb.

Both actors are in top form vocally, which helps bind an already strong cast together through musical numbers. And there are plenty of them; dialog is sparse at best in “Rent.”

As onetime friend and now landlord Benny, Nate Beagle puts just the right amount of sleaze into the character at the beginning to set him up as the villain in the piece. But Beagle keeps the character human as Benny has a change of heart later that brings the character back toward the fold with the others.

As Mimi, Roger’s girlfriend, Kylie Davis gives a strong turn. Her powerful vocal presence is illustrated in numbers such as “Light My Candle” and “Out Tonight.” As a spiraling heroin addict, she makes Mimi a vulnerable character with many layers that she artfully explores. Choreographically, she introduces the character well with a sensual and smooth undercurrent.

Tom Collins and Angel are played by Kage Jonas Coven and Wayne Bonner III, respectively. Collins, a gay anarchist professor, is handled expertly by Coven. His scenes with Angel, along with the musical pairing in “I’ll Cover You,” played out well.

Bonner got perhaps the most reaction of the evening from the opening night crowd of more than 500, as the cross-dressing street drummer Angel. Bonner carries the character off without a hitch in the early going before doing a stark turn around in Act II.

Maureen, much talked about early in the show, doesn’t show up until a bit later. And the appearance of Shiloh Hart in the role does not disappoint. She fills every expectation the audience has up to that point.

Hart is a ball of fire as Maureen, propelling much of the action once her character struts on stage. One of her high points is the number “Take Me or Leave Me” with Joanne (Grayson McCrory).

McCrory puts a hard edge on Joanne with excellent vocal skills to sell the character well.

“Rent” is not an easy show to mount, and director Matthew Mazuroski and the cast did well.

Rock musicals have come a long way since the likes of “Grease” and “Godspell,” but in so doing, some things have been left by the wayside.

“Rent” boasts a massive musical score with very little dialog. The music is fast and relentless as it mirrors the fragile lives and angst of the characters it follows.

Being distracted, even for a second, makes it very easy for the plot line to be lost at different points as it gets entwined in the tonnage of music. I found this happening at some points at the Thursday night opening. That is the nature of the beast, not the fault of the production.

The characters in “Rent” live under extraordinary circumstances with potential disaster around every corner. The music plays on that and pulls the audience right along – so hang on.

Mazuroski has done a masterful job of directing and moving his actors around the stage. There is nary a moment without something happening. Joe Spurio’s musical direction is equally well done, not just with the leads, but also with an outstanding ensemble led by Michael J. Moritz Jr. You won’t find any musical weaknesses in this show.

Mazuroski’s set design is minimal in some respects but puts the audience right in the building along with the characters. The scaffolding was like a myriad of hallways and entrances and levels, with graffitied walls giving the flavor of the Alphabet City neighborhood.

Ellen Licitra’s lighting design adds volumes to the set and the visual experience. Her use of effects and color give a real rock concert feel to the evening. The stage truly sparkles the entire performance.

Joanna Andrei’s choreography is fast-paced and electric. Although no energy needs to be added to this production, her choreography boosts that energy a hundred fold. She also shows up in the ensemble and in a couple small walk-on roles.

Costume design by Robert Dennick Joki adds to the sparkle. From drab, muted colors to high energy, flashy splashes of color, Joki’s design helps bring the entire show alive.

Last, and certainly not least, it was good to see the return of Youngstowner Moritz as guest conductor. Moritz did many shows at the Playhouse over the years before moving to New York where he has achieved success on Broadway. It was good to see him return.

Sound, which was partially provided by Moritz, was infinitely better than it was during the first Playhouse/DeYor partnership with “The Color Purple.” But there were still moments of slight mic problems and feedback and a few times when the band overpowered some musical numbers. But all of that can be excused just for having live music return to a Playhouse musical.

“Rent” will continue for three more performances: 7:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Audiences should be cautioned that it contains adult situations and language.

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.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.