Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the production three other times before this (Two of those times featuring original Broadway cast members Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal), but despite the involvement of big-name stars and a large and legendary venue as its stage, Rent at the Hollywood Bowl left more to be desired.
The Jonathan Larson rock opera, which closed on Broadway in 2008 and ended its final national tour earlier this year, opened on Friday night at the Los Angeles venue and will only run this weekend. The stage production marks the directorial debut of Neil Patrick Harris.
Rent follows a year in the lives of bohemians who struggle to make ends meet in NYC’s Lower East Side and because it’s a musical, they sing about it and sing through it. The lively and iconic cast of characters include Mark (Skylar Astin), a filmmaker; Roger (Aaron Tveit), a musician; Collins (Wayne Brady), their anarchist friend; Angel (Telly Leung), a street drummer/drag queen who becomes Collins’ lover; Mimi (Vanessa Hudgens), a young S&M performer and Roger’s love interest; Maureen (Nicole Scherzinger), a performance artist who was once involved with Mark; and Joanne (Tracie Thoms), a lawyer who is Maureen’s current squeeze. They must face up to the landlord Benny (Collins Pennie), who threatens to evict them to turn the building into a digital arts studio if they can not make the rent.
All of the musical numbers are there and performed uniquely by the new cast, but some are cut short due to the 11PM curfew at the Bowl, notably Collins and Angel’s tender “I’ll Cover You,” the most sexualized number in the original production “Contact,” and the finale. Needless to say, I would’ve loved to have seen all the numbers in full, thus one reason why Rent isn’t quite cut out to be a spectacular at the Hollywood Bowl. However, what’s important is that despite cuts and changes, the timeless story of the musical was still told.
Now, let’s talk about other changes from the original production: Instead of dancing through railing and stairs on “Out Tonight,” our Mimi dances across the stage and on the perimeter, giving it more of a strip club feel, a la Christopher Columbus’ 2005 film adaptation. Instead of a signature colorful shirt and jeans, Scherzinger dons a cleavage-baring corset and short skirt and is without a cowbell for Maureen’s epic “Over the Moon” monologue, making her look like more of an anime character than a bohemian performance artist. She also gets extra stage time as she tangos with both Mark and Joanne in the “Tango: Maureen,” putting Scherzinger’s recent Dancing With the Stars win to good use.
The best part of the bigger production was the band. Instruments such as strings, the cello, and the saxophone were used, instruments that I have not heard in the three other times I’ve seen the show. So big up to the band for utilizing their full potential.
The first casting choice of Hudgens, whose breakout role was in Disney’s squeaky clean High School Musical franchise, as the raunchy Mimi raised a lot of eyebrows when the news first broke in April. My final verdict: She won’t be the trainwreck some of the naysayers might be expecting her to be. You’ll be surprised with how much she can pull off. However, if this production was put on about two or three years from now, she would’ve been perfect. Her “Light My Candle” with Tveit’s Roger was awkward and chilly and her singing and dancing in “Out Tonight” still felt a little cutesy, but she had some beautiful and heartfelt moments with the ballads. However, the most unexpected pleasant surprise was Scherzinger, who stole every scene she was in to wild and rousing applause. Not only was she able to show off her signature dancing and amazing pipes (She sang so much better in this musical than in any Pussycat Dolls song, but NO, DUH), but she also proved to be a very talented and comedic actress and made Maureen her own character–even added a little more hip-hop to “Over the Moon”! Watch her “Take Me or Leave Me” with Thoms as Joanne below, and I dare you to tell me that she did NOT kill it:
While it was a wonderful experience to see Rent brought to life again, it didn’t come to par with expectations. Some of the chemistry between characters was a bit lacking and there could’ve been more with the production value. Simply though, I don’t believe it will have as much of an impact in a huge open-air theater like the Hollywood Bowl–the musical is still one that should only be performed in indoor venues specializing in Broadway productions for that more intimate audience connection.
However, all cast members did what was expected of them and conveyed the message that there is “no day but today.” The bigger picture is that Neil Patrick Harris was able to make such a diverse and talented group of people come together, and he had his own vision that translated very well on stage. And for that, the Hollywood Bowl version of Rent should be recognized and appreciated.