Director Matt McNabb on Lyric Arts' Rent staging: "A concert downtown at First Avenue was the basic idea"

Jonathan Larson's Rent is 20 years old. That's long enough for fans to grow up with the show. Fans like Matt McNabb.

"I grew up on it. I was just falling in love with musical theater. It blew my world as to what musicals could be," McNabb says.

McNabb's chance to get inside the show as a professional came via Lyric Arts in Anoka. He directs the company's production of the musical that opens Friday.


When it premiered, Rent broke open a calcified Broadway scene. In contrast to the slick, big-budget musicals that dominated the Great White Way at the time, Rent brought the grittiness of artists struggling to make their way in late-1980s New York. It dealt frankly with drug addiction, LGBTQ issues, and AIDS, while employing a then-novel rock beat for its score.

"It may be rooted in the '80s or '90s, but the themes are just as poignant as they were 20 years ago," McNabb says.

The staging at Lyric "has a gritty, open warehouse feel to it. A concert downtown at First Avenue was the basic idea. The band is onstage. We want to have a New York vibe to it," McNabb says.

That vibe extends to the music and the performances. "It's a rock opera. The production has this raw, almost out-of-control feel to it," he says.

The cast features a mix of veteran Lyric Arts performers and newcomers. "The cast is really phenomenal. Doing Rent has been exciting for the cast and us as artists. The material has drawn an amazing amount of talent," McNabb says.

With Rent, Lyric Arts is working to expand its offerings to more eclectic and challenging fare. The rest of the 2014-15 season includes Young Frankenstein, David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, and classics like Blithe Spirit and The Glass Menagerie.

"We are working hard to dispel the image of being a community theater. We're becoming a more artistically creative and respected theater company. It's amazing, but also challenging," McNabb says.


Rent Friday through August 3 Lyric Arts Main Street Stage 420 E. Main St., Anoka $17-$26 For tickets and more information, call 763-422-1838 or visit online.

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