Theater review: ‘Rent’ at the Hollywood Bowl


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Once the enfant terrible of rock musicals, “Rent” has comfortably settled into its doyen status. This “La Bohème”-inspired tale of poor East Village artists, addicts, activists and AIDS sufferers continues to touch audiences even though the subject matter for the show’s legion of young suburban fans must now seem as distant as that of tubercular waifs in 19th century Paris.

For three performances at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend, this Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning musical was celebrated in a production directed by a notable national tour alumnus of the show, Neil Patrick Harris, that versatile quintuple (or is it sextuple?) threat who might as well hold the monopoly on award-show emceeing. His mission here: To guide the diverse blend of talent from all over the entertainment map into paying homage to the gift that composer, lyricist and book-writer Jonathan Larson left to the world before dying tragically just prior to his work’s 1996 off-Broadway premiere.


On board were “High School Musical” sweetheart Vanessa Hudgens, Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger and star-in-the-making Aaron Tveit, who was part of the original Broadway ensemble of “Next to Normal.” My God, even game show jester Wayne Brady was in the mix, revealing the impressive vocal chops that earned him a Grammy nomination and could one day open the door to a new theatrical career were he ever to lose his lucrative “Let’s Make a Deal” day job.

Harris can do almost anything in my book, but he wasn’t able to figure out the spatial and logistical challenges of mounting a full-scale musical at the Bowl. Admittedly, this is a feat that could make the triple axel of figure skating seem like child’s play. But on Friday the first act was noticeably bumpy, with sound snafus and uncooperative lighting compounding an already blurry stage picture. Blocking is an advanced art, and Harris, still a novice as a director, had trouble negotiating an amphitheater so cavernous that not even those in prime seats could easily resist the lure of the giant screens flanking the stage. This “Rent” was best approached as a concert experience, as I explained to my friend, a first-timer to the musical, who kept peppering me with questions about a plot that, because of script cuts and the general fuzziness of presentation, was more difficult to track than usual. (The playbill contained a synopsis, but its detailed length cried out for a library carrel.) Fortunately, with the exception of a few off-key moments, the musical numbers were performed with enough juice to keep the crowd in that tearful-hopeful romantic mood that was Larson’s natural Puccini-rocker bent.

As Mark, the striving filmmaker donning that signature (and so easily parodied) “Rent” scarf, Skylar Astin didn’t do more than fill the nebishy outline of the role that won Harris acclaim when he performed it at the Ahmanson in 1997. Originally played by Anthony Rapp on Broadway, the character serves as a kind of ambassador between the audience and the world of the musical. Mark is perhaps the most iconic figure in ‘Rent,’ and Astin, possibly showing too much respect, shied away from uniquely personalizing him.

Although his bohemian frontman garb may be familiar, Tveit made Roger, Mark’s HIV-positive songwriter roommate, all his own. Desperate to write one great ballad before the disasters of his former junkie life swallow him whole, Tveit’s Roger has both the rock-star charisma and lost-boy inwardness to entice Mimi (Hudgens), the S&M dancer and drug addict beauty from downstairs, to barge into his home and break down his formidable emotional defenses.

“Light My Candle,” the charmingly simple song in which Mimi puts the moves on Roger, was handled in a wavering manner. Hudgens’ voice took some time to kick in, and her transformation into a street-savvy bad girl seemed a bit strenuous at times, as though she were more concerned with remaking her image than understanding her character.

But Hudgens’ acting and singing eventually gained traction, and there’s no telling how good she might be on stage with more experience and a fuller rehearsal schedule than the Bowl can provide. The electric current that passed between her and the audience (especially when she paraded out in hot Spandex) is a resource that producers will surely will want to tap, so count this amiable mixed performance as part of her undergraduate musical theater education.

Scherzinger’s powerhouse voice was meant for venues like the Bowl, and she roused the crowd with “Over the Moon,” the performance art/protest number her character Maureen delivered here like a wildcat. Tracie Thoms, who played Maureen’s lover Joanne, lent a steadying theatrical hand to their quarrels and quiet moments. If Scherzinger could use more discipline, it’s only because her outsize gifts come on like gangbusters.

The surprise for me was the confident intensity of Brady’s portrayal of Tom Collins, whose romance with Angel (a vibrant Telly Leung) was the most moving element of Harris’ production. The staging tended to lock the couple into variety-show frames, but the richness of vocal feeling between them burst the bounds with a passion that flirted with opera, gospel, rock and R&B.

Veteran ‘Rent’ musical director Tim Weil, maximizing the lush sound of the orchestra, rapturously served Larson’s score, which captures the very spirit of community resilience the musical sets out to honor. This was nowhere more evident than “Seasons of Love,” performed in the usual drill formation and featuring soloist Gwen Stewart from the original Broadway company.

If a sentimental classic is one that brings tears to your eyes each time you hear it, then this number certainly qualifies. Like the rest of the show, it breaks your heart while tenderly putting the pieces back together again.

-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty


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