Westport's Staples Players have never shied away from tackling theater pieces with complex music and controversial, mature themes. In conjunction with the town's continuing education program, this weekend the youth troupe will stage the award-winning musical "Rent." Based on the story depicted in Puccini's classic opera, "La Boheme," the group's summer production is directed by David Roth and Kerry Long, with music direction by Chris Coogan and choreography by Joanne Kahn.

Describing the show as a "period piece that displays a slice of life of a certain group of people at a certain time in history," Long said that "Rent" made a mark on theater history not only with its unique look and sound, but also because of its serious content. The plot of "Rent" takes a hard look at HIV/AIDS, substance dependency; homelessness, sexual and gender identify issues. As a result, organizers recommend that young children not attend the show.

However, both she and Roth, who are married, are proud of how the 50 teens involved in the production handled the "weighty subjects."

The young actors, though, expressed great respect for the show's themes. "We are honored to be able to present this show," said Kathryn Gau, 20, of Westport. "It really opens your eyes to another world that none of us had to experience. We've never had to struggle. Many opportunities were just given to us." She said that the cast appreciates having the opportunity to "preach the important message" offered in the musical.

Steve Autore, 16, of Fairfield, agreed. He admitted that he has never encountered the kinds of prejudice that prevented him from obtaining a job or living the kind of life he wanted, as some of the characters in the show do. One of its songs, "La Vie Boheme," celebrates the mantra of "live and let live."

"It's so powerful," he said. "The message is really beautiful."

Dan Shure, a recent graduate of Staples High who is cast in the leading role of Mark, is grateful that he is able to end his high school acting career with this production. "We're so lucky to do powerful theater that was originally created for a purpose," he said.

Opening Off-Broadway in 1995 and moving to Broadway the following year, "Rent" has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Best Musical. Its composer, Jonathan Larson -- the driving force behind its inception -- unexpectedly died the day before it was scheduled to debut Off-Broadway.

Gau said that his death is one of the "horrible ironies" of the show. " `Rent' is about accepting and living one's life and appreciating each and every moment because the unexpected so often does occur," she said. "Jonathan Larson's unexpected death really amped up the message. It's all about, cherishing what you have because it could be gone."

Shure noted that so much of the play's message is summed up in the song, "No Day Like Today."

Johnny Shea, 15, of Fairfield, plays a character, Angel, dying of AIDS. The character, however, has an upbeat attitude and kind nature and, because of that, is a catalyst for transformation in those around him. Perhaps because of the death sentence looming over his head, Angel teaches about what it means to truly live in the moment of the day.

A particularly moving scene in "Rent" comes in Act I when Angel and four other characters attend a local HIV support group meeting. Through the song "Will I?" they express fear about losing their dignity as they are dying.

Life and death is, once again, poignantly reflected upon during the opening of Act II in a song sung by the entire cast, "Seasons of Love." Its lyrics ask listeners to contemplate how to measure one's life. Is it best done by counting "sunsets" or "inches" or "cups of coffee?"

Yet "Rent" is also a musical filled with fun, silliness and upbeat moments. Shure said that he appreciates the characters' high energy and overall youthful spirit.

"I played the part of Mark at camp a few years ago, but it wasn't a very good production," he admitted. "I was wishing that I had the opportunity to do it again at a better theater."

Shea also appreciates the professional atmosphere created by Roth, Long, Kahn and Coogan at Westport's summer theater. "I had always heard about the Staples Players and now I know that it's all true. Everyone here lives up to its reputation," he noted.

Last spring, Shea performed the role of Jack in Fairfield Warde High School's production of "Into the Woods." He also enjoyed playing Billy in "Big, the Musical."

Gau, who will play Joanne in "Rent," is a veteran of several musicals at Staples High School. Some of her favorite roles were playing Mrs. Potts in "Beauty and the Beast" and Rizzo in "Grease" last summer.

Local audiences will recognize Shure for his portrayal of Mr. Mushnik in last season's "Little Shop of Horrors" on the Staples stage and Nicely Nicely in "Guys and Dolls."

And, coincidentally, Autore, who played Roger in last summer's production of "Grease," portrays another character named Roger in "Rent." Roth and Long said that since "Rent" is a rock musical, belting high notes is required. "It was a challenge to find actors that could handle the tough vocals and also be able to portray these strong emotions on stage," Roth said. "We were lucky to find a great group of actors and actresses."

"Rent" will be performed Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. as well as 2 p.m. Saturday. Seating is reserved and there is an e-ticket option where tickets could be printed at home. Ticket prices are $10 for students, $15, general admission.

However, with last week's severe weather, the Staples Players' website has encountered problems. Anyone unable to access staplesplayers.com can reach the group's online box office by using the link posted to the blog: http://playersrent.tumblr.com/ or through the Players' facebook page.