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Theater review: 'Rent' at the Hollywood Bowl

August 8, 2010 |  2:45 pm

Rent a

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.



Rent b 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

Photos: Top: Aaron Tveit and Vanessa Hudgens. Bottom: Wayne Brady and Telly Leung. Credit: Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times


Neil Patrick Harris' new 'Rent' role: director

Photos: Famous 'Rent' cast members

Comments () | Archives (26)

wow i totally agree with this. Hudgens did come out rocky during Candle...and i can tell the audience members around agreed as their expressions crinkled up.i was a bit sad because that was my fave song in the musical...but then later on she got better. i loved nicole scherzinger as maureen to my surprise..she was so funny, and wayne brady's voice was fantastic. i think Mark and Roger were awesome and i was happy i didnt know the actors....however i was ecstatic when i saw that Tracie Thoms was Joanne since i loved her in the movie! i did hear people talking about the stage presentation and that they weren't happy about it, but i really didnt care about that. overall good show.

yes the show was amazing Hudgens was amazing she really worked hard at it, and it paid off i being a mimi fan go Vanessa love it hope it goes on dvd

Saw Rent, as I have a box at the bowl. Like passed down through family. And I'm not yet 50. But, from the third rate Beatles Cruise ship show, to the neurotically torturous music of Bugs Bunny Cartoons, to last night's disjointed bus and truck company of Rent - I now know that under the leadership of the over paid Deborah Borda (at over $800,000 a year plus benefits - hello Bell, California) the Hollywood Bowl is in a general decline.

As for Rent - there were just a lot of songs, no book, cut scenes and flashy light. I think this is due to Ms. Borda. She lacks the style and class of a Ernest Fleischmann to present anything that could be seen in Vegas with the benefit of a good buffet. Borda gives off the impression she could immediately be running a Sears - after some idiotic announcement she made at the Bugs Bunny concert.

Since I avoid eating in the box - after being surrounded by people with take-out Arbey's - I go to Musso Franks and then walk (easier to escape at intermission). Passed a lot of 30 to 40 Rent fans. My son, whose 24, had no interest. One of the Rent fans wondered what the magazine was they were selling for a dollar. I told him it was a program - he asked what's that?

Well in hindsight, you didn't need the program since it mainly goes on about the dreary Board of Supervisors, how great Ms. Borda is and doesn't list the fact Rent has two acts or a list of the musical numbers. This should have been called American Rent.

The show labored to find a focus - and I'm not talking about the idiotic Christmas tree - the cast was all over the stage - and you end up watching those God awful TV screens with neck strain. The cast was young and fresh and the direction okay - but the poor guy directing it - "touted as a genius" - its like directing a concert version for the Ringling Bros. Circus.

The Phil made money I guess - but they can take, after this dreary season, my box and rent it. Because no renewal. And I'm not alone. Many friends are tired of the direction the bowl is going. Which seems to be Fremont Vegas shows at over the top Broadway prices.

And if they are looking for the young "what's a program" audience - to be attracted to the Philharmonic at Disney Hall - forget it. My son isn't interested - he doesn't like going downtown except to the clubs.

To Pasadena Jag--yes, please do let go of your family's box seats and bring some fresh air back into the Hollywood Bowl. You're tired..cynical attitude is unbelievably dull. I don't have box seats but I saw the bowl production of Rent and was very impressed by it. Of course I have a history with the play...I saw it the first week it played on broadway with the original cast..a week after playwright died. It is a musical filled with love and hope and sincerity...and the cast really gave it their all. You see way more concerned with the politics of the Hollywood Bowl rather than the presentations. You saw one younger person who didn't know what a program was...and you make him representative of an entire group of people. Well, I saw an old man nodding off during the play...he sure looked like he was from old Pasadena money and had inherited his subscription back in the gold mining days...perhaps it was you...or one of your 'friends'.

Hey pasadena jag - There was, I am sure, a time you did not know what a program was. That first time. That first magical time you were initiated into the etiquette of performance. No doubt this weekend was a first for those kids of which you wrote. Better late than never. Theatre cannot continue without an income and a community, and we need those young people to come see live performances!!

Sounds like Patner was at the Bowl.

Pasadenajag, I'm sure the Pasadena Playhouse would welcome your money. I'm not sure if their next season will cater to your elitist tastes, either...but it could sure use your money.

pasadena jag - why on earth did you go to a show that you knew deep down inside that you wouldn't enjoy? This was a review on the show....not about the politics of the how the bowl is being operated or about other shows. Admittedly, my in-laws went to the Beatles thing and hated it. We were at the Bugs Bunny event and I LOVED it. If you hated it...then you just don't like Bugs, so again, don't understand why you attended in the first place.

As for Rent, I loved it. Wasn't quite as good as it would have been in an actual theatre, but I appreciated the effort. Listening to the songs were great and I really felt that all the actors tried their best. I agree, this is better approached as a concert, rather than as an actual stage musical. Otherwise you would be disappointed unless you had box seats and were close enough to see their faces. As for the actors themselves, I think that Nicole and Telly were the standouts of the cast. The rest needed either more rehearsals or need some actual stage experience to really understand how to project emotions. Vanessa, for example, is a film actress, so she's not used to projecting her emotions when the camera is 6 feet away. Overall, I enjoyed it. I love Rent and NPH, you did a fine job with what you had. The Bowl is not an easy place to stage this kind of show.

Pasadena Jag: You wouldn't like Disney Hall either. They sometimes do music written after 1900.

This was easily the worst production of Rent I've seen. There were songs and lines cut fromt he production. The microphones failed. Many forgot their lines, including Nicole (Maureen) who had uncomfortable silence and kept repeating the same words. They stepped over each other's lines. Vanessa (Mimi) sang so horribly, I thought my ears would bleed. And just when I thought, oh, must be nerves because she is improving, she went back to her horrible singing. The lighting was horrible. Plus, the added details - i.e. Tango Maureen movie version - got a big thumbs down from us. Had I not seen this production about a dozen times, I would've been lost. But it sounds like first timers did not notice. So I'm glad Larson has won some new followers. But, there were times when my sister and I turned and looked at each other in disbelief. Oh well. I have to say, though, Nicole (Marueen) had an amazing voice and she was impressive. Brady (Tom Collins) impressed me. I love NPH but - better luck next time.

Hey Pasadena jag, can I buy your box tickets? I find going to the bowl as one of the benefits of living in L.A. I love it!
So please please let me buy your box tickets.

Great to hear the defensive reactions of obvious Phil board members who support Ms. Borda - the rather lack luster woman pulling down a million a year with benefits with her only talent being a bean counter that should be investigated again by this newspaper.

I had seen the Broadway production of Rent - great. But don't like paying $110 per performance at the Bowl - at Broadway prices with presentations being something better than booking house gigs.

As for Rent - my review was there. Similar to a bus and truck production, difficult to stage, with some enthusiastic performances. No book, not stars and basically difficult to follow - if you didn't know it - without reading the very overwritten synopsis in the program in the pitch dark.

I did not like the Beatles concert because it was a Vegas lounge act - no names - not because of the Beatles. It smelled of Bowl budget cuts to bring in the bucks. As for Bugs Bunny - that obviously is a commercial tie-in with Warner Bros. and was more like a paid pitch for TV programming. I love Bugs but not two hours of that jarring music with a commentary by that conductor who should visit Jenny Craig and lacks the panache of a John Williams or Keith Lockhart. Remember cartoons were only suppose to be seen for 5 minutes.

The Bowl use to have a Boston Pops feel to it - now its an embarrassment. But look at the Phil board - bucks buy you on in and not talent beyond making money. That's the arts in America.

As for some mid-twenty year old not knowing what a program, it only testifies that the elitist boards of the Philharmonic aren't out there spending more money on introducing "art" to kids. They are filling the coffers of some paper pusher like Ms. Borda's inflated salary a la Bell, California.

If the geratric board members running the Phil think young people who attend Rent are going to rush Disney Hall in the winter - they need to retire now and commit themselves to assisted living.

Also, in walking up to the Bowl - it may have some suits on its hands as the roadway were the non elitists walk is filled with pot holes. But those down in the boxes munching on the equivalent of business class meals wouldn't know that. They park, don't walk.

As for the current state of the Pasadena Playhouse - no comment.

man, Vanessa (Mimi) was so horrible and terrifically unsexy. She hit so many bad notes it was uncomfortable. When she did the "going out tonight" number - yikes, it made me want to cut my ears off.
Nicole was a gem, stole the show and smartly cast as Maureen. Tracie Thoms and Nicole were great together.
the stage was just way too big...i hadn't a clue to where to look sometimes.
this was my first time seeing Rent. i didn't know a thing about it before hand. not sure i understand what the hubbub is all about either. didn't think the music was all that and, man, it's a downer.
all in all, good effort.
but Vanessa needs some work, bless her little heart.

Pasadena jag, you should be more concerned about your deplorable writing skills than what fellow Bowl patrons are eating at the Bowl.

I for one am thrilled that the Hollywood Bowl is reaching out to new audiences and I'm sure the box office will be very happy to resell your box to someone that actually wants to be there.

I really wish the review mentioned Telly Leung, who played Angel. I read elsewhere that he sang the CRAP out of his songs, and I completely agree. His voice was AMAZING.

Nicole Scherzinger resembled the second coming of Lucille Ball during 'Over The Moon'. Hilarious!

And her 'Take Me or Leave Me' duet with Tracie Thoms blew the roof off the joint.

Hands down she stole the show. Wish she could have somehow played Mimi as well.

Vanessa had moments of good singing especially in the slow songs. The out tonight number was not very strong vocally but she more than made up for it as she had immense energy on stage with all the dancing she had to do for that number.

Now for the topic at hand, I am inclined to agree with everyone in saying she gave a rather lack luster performance. And I’m not saying this because I hate her. In fact I support her in what she wants to do and I hope she accomplishes everything she wants in life. I really do. I think she has legitimate talent and a chance to really do well in this business. However for RENT, I have to admit that she was completely unprepared and it shows.

And like I said, I say this with a heavy heart because I really do believe she is capable of pulling off a good role. Possibly on a live stage if she really worked at it. I really do think she has the tools to do so. She wouldn’t have been in four musically theme movies and garnered generally positive reception from the critics if she didn’t have the tools and the know how.

It would be like if a cook had all the raw materials to make an elaborate delicious meal as well as the know how to cook. But he never made a meal of such a caliber before and didn’t take any preparation FOR said meal, and then it’s going to turn out bad. And that’s what happened here. She was unprepared.

And yeah she got a standing ovation along with everyone and yeah she got cheers, but you’re going to get that in any big production. Not to mention there were a ton of HSM fan girls there cheering on their favorite actress.

But in general yeah her reception for her performance was negative. Mixed AT BEST. I agree with the person who said she was “50 percent on and 50 percent off”. This makes it worse knowing that with a little more preparation she could’ve done better. And I hope she does. I really do.

She should take this as a lesson. Because negative reviews can be a good thing. You learn from the mistakes you made and you learn to better yourself as a performer.

But in her defense, stage acting is VERY different from motion picture acting. You don’t have the luxury of the director yelling “cut” when you made a mistake or the added bonus of taking breaks in between scenes and what not. You have to CONSTANTLY be in character and on point. Also you’re not performing in front of a live audience in a movie so there’s also that. It’s a VERY different experience.

None the less she at least attempted the role. And I give her credit for that. That’s about it. Maybe one day in the future with more experience and preparation, she’ll do better. I hope so. Like I said, she should learn from those negative reviews.

Vanessa Hudgens has not been on stage for two years, but with time, and practice she more than could have pulled it off. She has a good voice, but ultimately the part was a little to big for her at this time in her life, but she did put tremendous energy into it and no matter that people bashed her she came back and performed when most would have folded. She was nervous anyone could see that who wouldn't be if they never have done that before I was there two out of three shows and she did her best on Sunday compared to me seeing it on Friday night. So kudos to Vanessa for braving the naysayers.

Vanessa can't sing, and should not have been cast in this role. She was terribly out of place. Her notes were often out of key. She would have been ripped apart on American Idol.

She looked good, though. And, I'm not saying she can't act. She just can't sing. Maybe if you doctor up her voice in a studio, she might be okay for a kids' show. But, to see her live, it's a waste of money.

Nicole has an amazing voice. The moments she sang were the best. She is an amazing talent.

The production was not well done. There were many people at times, who largely seemed to have no bearing on the scene. It was better to watch the monitors, than the stage.

I for one, will never pay to hear Vanessa sing live again. I felt totally ripped off by her being cast for this role. It's not even her fault...she was mis-cast. She's cute, and might one day be able to cut it as an actress...maybe. But, just because she did HSM, doesn't mean she can sing. She can't.

Anyone who writes anything else is just trying to spare her feelings. Everyone who heard her knows that she was the weakest link, in a poor production. A review should be honest, not an attempt to spare feelings. The LA Times reviewer isn't doing a service to those looking for advice, when he writes that she got better during the performance. Yeah, she got better...she went from horrible, to bad. That doesn't mean she was good, as she wasn't. But, she is cute, and looked good.

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