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Split Stage Productions debuts with 'Rent' at Greensburg Garden and Civic Center

| Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Assistant director and choreographer Laura Wurzell works with the cast during rehearsal for 'Rent' on August 27, 2013 at the Greensburg Garden and Civic Center.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Musical director Rob Jessup goes over notes during rehearsal for 'Rent' on August 27, 2013 at the Greensburg Garden and Civic Center.

Split Stage Productions will debut at the Greensburg Garden and Civic Center.

Its full-scale production of “Rent,” the late Jonathan Larson's award-winning Broadway musical, will open at 8 p.m. Thursday. Other performances will be offered at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the center.

Rob Jessup of Murrysville and Nate Newell of Greensburg said they created Split Stage as a way to spotlight Westmoreland-area talent and bring unconventional, community-produced entertainment to local audiences.

“Split Stage is a way for us to establish our footprint in Westmoreland County,” said Jessup, its music director. “We saw an opportunity in the area to do something that people want to see and actors want to do — something modern and edgy — and ‘Rent' was perfect for that.”

After multiple collaborations between Jessup and Newell, along with choreographer and co-director Laura Wurzell of Delmont, the duo decided to tap into the area's vast supply of unknown talent and bring the revolutionary and controversial “it” show to life in their own backyard.

“There's a ton of passion for the arts in this area,” Jessup said. “For those who can't escape to New York City for a weekend to see a musical, we want to give them a real downtown performance.”

The trio first shared the stage in the 2012 production of “Man of La Mancha” at Apple Hill Playhouse in Delmont. After following those performances with productions of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged” and “Sweet Charity,” they decided to get together to produce performances.

“Rent” is very different from anything they have ever done.

“‘Rent' brings an entirely different dynamic to the theatrical world,” said Jessup. “We're fortunate enough to have an unbelievable cast to bring this show to life. The performances will have something for everyone to enjoy.”

Set in New York City's East Village, the musical draws an inspiring love story from the struggles of a group of “starving artists” striving to create, despite the obstacles of addiction, poverty and illness.

At the time of its premiere in 1996, “Rent” broke from the conventional theater mold and continues to hold weight with its serious subject matter and iconic songs, according to Jessup. It won a Pulitzer Prize.

“The music in the show has always set itself apart from everything else theater-goers have ever heard,” said Jessup. “It helps weave together a story of love, family, friendship and survival. On top of that, I can guarantee audiences have never heard voices like the ones in our cast before.”

Newell, a Montana native who graduated from Seton Hill University in 2003, has been acting, directing and designing sets with Apple Hill Playhouse, Greensburg Civic Theater, New Kensington Civic Theatre and Noble Productions. He was nominated for best director in 2012 for Pittsburgh New Work and has directed works for Saltsburg and Blairsville high schools.

Jessup, a New Jersey native, studied theater and music at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire before touring with theater and choral groups throughout the northeastern United States, southern Canada and Eastern Europe. Wurzel has been involved with community theater groups for the past 25 years. She has directed, choreographed and acted in numerous productions.

“In the future, we want to grow as a company and continue to take over nontraditional venues,” Jessup said. “‘Rent' is a perfect place to start, because it's uplifting and delivers a different message to everyone who experiences it. I'm confident our audiences will leave every night having been emotionally changed forever.”

Kaylie Harper is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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