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‘Rent’ to be staged at the Geyer Performing Arts Center | entertainment

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For the Observer-Reporter

The production of the musical “Rent” at the Geyer Performing Arts Center is a passion project for the show’s co-directors and cast.

“This show really defined who we were and what we were feeling at the time,” said Tyler Handford, who is co-directing the production with Rachael Szabo. “It was our generation’s ‘Hamilton’.”

“Tyler and I bonded over the music of ‘Rent’ all the way back in high school,” Szabo said. “We used to sing one of the more popular songs from the show, ‘What You Own,’ as a duet quite often.”

Released in 1996, “Rent” is a Pulitzer Prize winning musical that tells the story of a group of defeated young artists struggling to survive and create a life in Lower Manhattan’s East Village in the thriving days of bohemian New York while under the shadow of HIV /AIDS.

“The message of the show really spoke to me as a young gay person in the 90s,” Handford said. “I was a teenager, in the closet, trying to figure out how to navigate through life, not knowing if society or my family would accept me, and ‘Rent’ showed me what it was like for people like me to be treated normally, or to be celebrated even.”

Although Handford said his family was very open minded about who he is, he said the musical showed him what it was like to be unapologetically himself and helped give him courage.

Every year since 2014, Handford and Szabo have applied for the rights to do the show and have been denied every time. They kept busy doing other shows special to them, but “Rent” has always been in the back of their minds.

Other than the message, Handford said the music of “Rent” is really what makes the show so special to audiences. All the lyrics come from an honest place and almost ever number packs a giant emotional punch, he said.

“The musical style is really a blend of pop, rock, soul, gospel, rap, techno and contemporary Broadway,” he said. “This rag-tag group of artists and bohemians are the definition of a chosen family, and I think it’s easy for people to identify with them.”

Handford added that what makes the show so special is what also makes it challenging to produce.

“Because of its rock-opera format, there is very little spoken word,” Handford said. “It’s really song after song after song, and that can be challenging for both the actors and for [Szabo] and I as directors.”

Around 30 actors are involved with the show, with many traveling quite a distance to be in it.

“We have people coming from New Kensington, Brownsville, Pittsburgh, Uniontown, Latrobe and other places that aren’t super close to the theater because they all wanted a chance to be a part of this special show,” Szabo said, adding that the passion everyone has for the show shines through in their performances. “We have our regular faces that you see at the Geyer and quite a few new faces, too.”

Handford said new faces have also appeared behind the scenes as well.

“We are working with a new-to-us music director, David Kornfield, and he is absolutely wonderful,” he said. “David loves the show as much as we do, so it’s been great working with him.”

He added that he and Szabo are also working with their long-time collaborators, Marina Stefano as the show’s choreographer, and Tina Lepidi-Stewart as the show’s stage manager.

“So rehearsals feel like a big family,” Handford said, adding that he and Szabo have shared directorial duties for seven to eight years of shows. “We always come in with our own visions for our shows, and we meet in the middle.”

“Tyler and I both studied under people like Merle Stutzman, Bill Colvin, Dane Shultz and Marsha Brady as part of the Connellsville High School musicals and acting/directing programs, and they ran a tight ship,” Szabo said. “We are definitely a product of their leadership and are quite proud of it.”

“Rent” will run Feb. 17 through 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 20 at 2:30 p.m. at the Geyer Performing Arts Center in Scottdale.

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