It is certainly an event fit for Hollywood. On the weekend of August 6-8, the infamous 17,000-seat Hollywood Bowl plays host to a forcibly-scaled-up version of Jonathan Larson's Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical RENT, directed by none other than Neil Patrick Harris. Harris' challenge—besides honoring a beloved show as well as living up to his stunt casting choices—was to take a relatively-intimate rock musical about financially-strapped bohemians living in the less-than-luxurious Lower East Side enclave of New York City and expand it on the massive stage entrenched in the Hollywood Hills.
The results—a mixed bag of technical gaffes, surprisingly excellent performances, and a few disappointments—prove to be admirably and genuinely entertaining overall. Your enjoyment of this version of RENT will depend primarily on the absence of pre-show expectations and one's willingness to accept many of the changes Harris made in order to mount his specific vision at this venue.
It is arguably expected that many among the mass of patrons in attendance at the show were devoted "RENT-heads" as well as audience members already familiar with the hit musical. They certainly have a distinct advantage over those here to just casually take in a night out under the stars to watch Harris direct a collective mix of Hollywood celebrities, Broadway veterans and stage newbies dramatize a musical based loosely on Puccini's La Bohème.
Somehow, because of the sheer size of the stage, much of the story and the intimate character vignettes get lost in the chaos of multi-level scaffolding platforms and an expanded ensemble cast scurrying from one end of the stage to the other. The pandemonium—coupled with the show's narrative trajectory—will not doubt confuse many who are unfamiliar with what is happening on stage.
It didn't help that opening night featured an alarming amount of technical blunders: from missed microphone cues and other frustrating audio problems, to follow spots not focusing on the correct characters that needed the audience's attention in a particular scene. While problems such as these are not unheard of in the world of live theater, they were disappointing nonetheless. Knowing the show and story beforehand is almost a prerequisite in order to adequately follow what transpires on this version of the show.
Also, as expected, doing RENT at the Hollywood Bowl required a bit of creative editing. The Bowl's multi-generational audience and the late start time (8:30 in the evening) undoubtedly forced Harris to make a few trims to the show... edits that will not only tighten the show's running time, but also "clean up" the AIDS-era musical a bit to be more palatable for this venue's mixed audience. While there are arguably plenty of things to trim away from the original show, the trims made here forced a slightly truncated show with some jarringly short transitions and a few glaring omissions, notably the club music-tinged scene that leads up to the heartbreaking funeral wake for one of the show's endearingly loved characters (avoiding a spoiler here, just in case a reader prefers not to know). Though the death and its emotional aftermath still packs a wallop, the character's suffering seemed almost too swift for it to really register.
The heart of the story itself, however, remains lovingly intact. Mark (Spring Awakening's Skylar Astin), a witty, self-effacing film auteur, wants to "document real life" by pointing his movie camera towards the denizens of the starving artists that reside in his downtrodden neighborhood, thereby exposing the tragedies—and celebrating the uniqueness—of "La Vie Boème." One of these "starving artists" includes his roommate, jaded rock musician and ex-junkie Roger (Next to Normal's excellent Aaron Tveit), who is trapped in a funk after his girlfriend commits suicide upon learning they were both HIV-positive.
It is Christmas Eve. Downstairs, their friend Tom Collins (Emmy winner Wayne Brady) gets mugged. Luckily, he is aided by street drummer and master gender-illusionist Angel (Telly Leung, in a wonderful performance). Both learn in their meet-cute that they are HIV-positive and are thoroughly smitten with each other. Mark and Roger's former friend and current landlord Benny (the often pitchy Collins Pennie, the show's weakest link), in the meantime, is demanding the boys for the rent. Benny agrees to conveniently forgive the owed money if the two help curtail the planned protest gathering being organized by Mark's ex Maureen (pop star Nicole Scherzinger, the show's absolute surprise standout).
Back at the loft, Roger—who hasn't left his apartment in six months—tries writing "One Great Song" but is visited by downstairs neighbor, exotic dancer Mimi (High School Musical's Vanessa Hudgens). Roger is entranced, but is turned off by Mimi's seemingly "addictive" personality. Mark, on the other hand, finds strength to help his ex Maureen's current girlfriend Joanne (the always great Tracie Thoms). In between, the audience is taken to the many corners of life in the Alphabet City, from an HIV-positive group meeting to the post-protest celebration of "La Vie Bohème" at the Life Café. All the while, the characters all struggle often with the demands of a capitalist society working against their wishes and desires to live the artists' life (a life that includes a few breaks for a dose of AZT).
Despite a few glaring hiccups that may be attributed to this particular version's hurried, rapid-fire race to the finish line of August 6, Neil Patrick Harris manages to create—within a two-week rehearsal period—a serviceably fresh approach to a show that, frankly, in its normal staging, feels a bit dated. Undeniably, though, Larson's masterpiece still carries with it an emotional wallop and an engaging score that helped make it a bona fide, worldwide hit in the first place.
Tasked to fill the Hollywood Bowl stage with a musical that is far removed from the decidedly grander-scale shows that have been revived here each summer, Harris does an admirable job of creating various specific spaces for the show's more intimate scenes to come alive. Much of the alternations that Harris makes to the show do work in order for it to play well, even for those in the cheap seats seemingly a mile away.
There's plenty to love in Harris' revisionist take. For a fuller, richer sound to carry through the enlarged venue, new brass and string-enhanced orchestrations have been added in by musical director Tim Weil. Some of the revisions do make for a few awkward transitions between scenes, but otherwise, the new sound is a welcome change to an already genius score. The set has expanded in scale as well, perhaps to accommodate the swelled number of the cast.
As the tortured, brooding Roger, Tveit is truly a commanding stage presence, thanks to a handsome visage, killer vocal skills and a committed, assured acting style. Close-ups of his effortless performances on the giant screens on either side of the stage help convey his remarkable talent all the way up to the back of the Bowl. As Mark, Astin does a terrific job with his songs, despite appearing a bit more timid and nebbishy than his character possibly should have to be. Together, the two roommates are terrific acting partners, especially during "Halloween" in the second act.
As usual, Thoms, a veteran of both the final Broadway production as well as the viciously-maligned film adaptation of RENT, is outstanding and firmly reliable as Joanne. The impressive Leung steals many jaded hearts in his turn as Angel, the drag queen with a heart of gold.
Brady, as philosophy teacher Collins, is truly a gifted, talented performer. Less shtick-y than his usual appearances, Brady surprisingly reveals himself to be quite a riveting actor, capable of nuanced acting and beautiful vocals that are buttery smooth, especially in his rich low register. His touching solo on the highly-emotional "I'll Cover You" reprise in the show's second act starts out with reverence and ends on a high. What I would give to see the talented Mr. Brady in a revival of Pippin!
Perhaps, the show's most eye-opening, awe-inducing performer of all is the surprisingly wonderful Dancing With The Stars champion and Pussycat Dolls frontwoman Nicole Scherzinger. Aside from forgetting some minor, non-critical lyrics in the start of the second act, Scherzinger induced the loudest cheers of the night thanks to her outstanding turn as Maureen. Effectively stealing the show from her more theatrically-experienced peers, this pop star is sexy, funny, slinky, manipulative, captivating and just plain amazing.
Arguably, being the lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls, Scherzinger is the only one in the cast with actual experience performing in front of arena-sized crowds, so her exciting portrayal of Maureen is especially entertaining. She makes Maureen's performance art piece "Over The Moon" truly her own, spicing it up with a few risqué moves and a deviation into a hip-hop delivery as she plays to the crowd. She is also given a chance to showcase her recently-acquired ballroom skills from Dancing with the Stars in a surprise appearance during "Tango: Maureen." There is no doubt that Scherzinger has gained a new fan-base within the musical theater-loving community with this performance. Wow.
And here, because of an expanded cast, doubling characters is an infrequent occurrence, allowing for a few age-appropriate casting choices in many of the minor roles. So it was a nice surprise to see comedienne Rachael Harris (no relation to Neil) step forward in the revival specifically to portray Mark's mother with curlers in her hair, and later in a smart suit as Alexi Darling, a TV executive (both via dramatized voice mail, of course).
Even Neil Patrick Harris' own real-life significant other David Burtka does a great job both as the harried waiter at the Life Café and in his amazing feature solo spot in the affecting "Will I?" And, of course, it goes without saying that it is always great to see and hear the solo spot in the iconic "Seasons of Love" in the hands of original Broadway cast member Gwen Stewart.
Of course, we cannot discuss Harris' RENT revival without diving into the surprise (?) casting of Vanessa Hudgens in the critical role of Mimi. While she can certainly be applauded for her admirable go-for-broke efforts to shed her squeaky-clean Disney persona by portraying an HIV-positive exotic dancer with a drug problem, Hudgens, unfortunately, is just simply too young-looking (and young-acting) to play the demanding role. The part of Mimi requires one to channel a strung-out, haggard, cautious, yet manic personality of someone that has been weathered by the harshness of life.
Aside from the High School Musical trilogy, the beautiful Ms. Hudgens has also managed to cultivate a pop music career, but one that's not at all as edgy as is required to play the crazy-sexy Mimi. Despite the skin-tight sexy outfits and the sexed-up dance moves (choreographed by Jamal Sims) that she gamely takes on, Hudgens' pretty but thin vocals can't quite pierce through enough, as if she's merely a rebellious teen playing dress up for Halloween. Still, kudos for trying.
Often, she exudes a timid vibe... understandable considering the pressure of singing/dancing/acting without a net inside a venue that seats 17,000. She sounds significantly better during the ballads, where she probably has more chances to catch her breath compared to the more athletic numbers that have her sprinting all across the huge stage, winded.
There is a slight hint in her portrayal that presents a want in her to be as dangerous as the character she's playing, but Hudgens can't quite get there. So as a side effect, there's little to believe in the chemistry between her Mimi and Tveit's Roger. Perhaps in time (and maybe a bit more polish and rehearsals) Hudgens may very well succeed in reprising this role sometime later in her career.
But the flaws of this otherwise entertaining showcase can best be blamed solely on, again, the grand scale needed to do this specific show in this specific venue. It can be posited that the actors' breathless delivery (especially Hudgens') is due to having to climb and dash across a larger-than-usual stage, a certainly taxing exercise for someone not used to the rigors of live theater. This kind of live theater is certainly different from a situation where a director can yell "cut" in between scenes or knowing that songs can be fixed with proper re-recorded studio modifications later. While truly amazing for arena-style concerts and other large-scale productions (such as their recent revivals of Les Misérables, Guys and Dolls, and South Pacific), the Hollywood Bowl could be a hinderance to shows like RENT that rely heavily on the actors connecting emotionally and spiritually with its audience. Those jumbo screens can only do so much.
Notwithstanding the technical flubs, a shortened rehearsal period, and a few less-than-stellar moments, this Hollywood Bowl production of RENT, with the feel of a concert staging, is still a thoroughly entertaining theatrical experience that is absolutely worth seeing. Harris has achieved beyond expectations bringing this musical to a massively new scale that is both admirable and enjoyable. More than anything, this version of RENT did a terrific job of distracting the audience from the few flaws of the original show itself, by parading a bevy of stellar performances from an all-star cast oozing with talent and charisma. Everyone on stage appears to have given it their valiant all, and the audience rightly responds with thunderous applause.
Perhaps Friday night's presentation can be considered the show's final dress rehearsal and that the gaffes will be fixed come Saturday night and for its final swan song on Sunday night.