Everything is bigger in Hollywood. Or at least more glamorous. Therefore, when walking into the Hollywood Bowl performance of RENT directed by Neil Patrick Harris, I have to admit I was expecting something of a spectacle. For one thing, the space is pretty epic-- both the amount of seats but also the size of the stage. For another, the play itself has become so mainstream over the past few years that it has become somewhat white-washed of the grit and seedy underbelly that was late-eighties New York City, the era in which the events take place. But furthermore, the media has been making a big stink over all of the changes from the addition of cast members so the ensemble doesn't have to split as many parts, as well as the new orchestrations. And I admit I went in a bit scared. When it comes to RENT, I am a purist. And I can't say I walked out completely blown away like the first time I ever saw the performance on Broadway, but I will say that I was surprised quite a few times throughout the evening.
Let's start with the stage. The minute I walked into the Bowl, the set design differences smacked me across the face, even from up in the nosebleeds. The tree was much more upstage center, and there were additional set pieces (like a hideous arm chair for Roger and Mark's apartment and a vanity for what would turn out to be Mimi's strip club dressing room). I wasn't thrilled; part of the charm of RENT is that the stage is so stark and in keeping with the standard workshop feel, but I admit that without all of these extra items, the stage would have looked absolutely massive.
But because the stage was so massive, as was the venue in general, it was not nearly as easy to get swept up in the energy as it is in smaller venues, even like the Pantages. I'm glad I am so familiar with the show because the little nuances and subtle moments between characters would have been lost on me had I not known they were coming and to direct my attention to a certain part of the stage. And since the venue was so big, the acoustics weren't always even, and many of the larger numbers, including and especially the opening titular track, felt a little bit like just a rehearsal-- like the performances weren't turned up all the way.
NPH did take some liberties with the orchestration; it was much more "big band" than usual, and while that is classy and fitting for a place like the Hollywood Bowl, it sanitized the sound of RENT as we have come to know and love it. It very much felt like the music that would have been in Christopher Columbus' Disney-fied PG13 version. It was all pomp and circumstance, even when it should have been anger and passion. Even in Maureen's performance art piece, there was an accompanying cello, and I couldn't help but think how Maureen is sooo not a cello person!
The crazy red, blue, and yellow flashing lighting during Roger's powerful and fateful "One Song Glory" was also something out of Disney. I didn't think anyone could strip the harsh realism out of this story more than Columbus, but that lighting made me seriously question NPH's judgement. Luckily, he seemed to just get caught up in that moment because it didn't come back in later scenes, and it was almost forgettable. Only almost, though. I credit this play with literally saving my life all those years ago when it first debuted on Broadway, and my dedication to keeping it-- and Jonathan Larson's memory-- intact is steadfast.
NPH also flexed his directorial muscles most notably by trimming little bits of the play here and there. It was usually only a line or two but for two glaring omissions in the form of "Contact" and the "Santa Fe Reprise." Admittedly, losing the somewhat muddy beginning of "Contact" and just highlighting Angel's solo as he passes away was a strong choice. It took away a moment that was never much of a musical slam dunk anyway and focused on the true heart of the second act. In the same vein, it was interesting to see "No Day But Today" without Mark barging in on the beginning and disrupting the nice, intimate moment of the support group. However, "Sante Fe Reprise" is fun and quirky, and a nice, lighter moment between the guys before the reality of their world once again sets in. Also, losing the lines where Collins tells Benny Angel killed his dog made it unclear to those who had never seen the show before (like a friend I was seeing the show with, for example) exactly what went on with that dog in the first place.
As you all know, my issues always lay with the casting. I questioned some of NPH's choices when they were announced, and even after he tried to justify them, I worried. Today, I can safely say that he was one for two. Obviously Skylar Astin and Aaron Tveit as Mark and Roger, respectively, were phenomenal. Though I initially thought they should have been cast in different roles, they won me over immediately and so completely embodied the characters I literally forgot about Adam and Anthony. Both could sing their way out of a paper bag, and Tveit especially looks good doing it! My friends and I quickly bonded with the slightly drunk ladies in front of us when they all exclaimed they thought he was "so cute" and had "great arms."
I was super happy to finally get to see Tracie Thoms perform live on stage, and considering she was a fan first, I never worried about her. Gwen Stewart is always incomparable, though I was bummed that half of her usual material got cut because cast members were added and roles divvied up. But she is a consummate pro. Telly Leung and Wayne Brady were solid and believable, and Rachael Harris was a fun turn as Mark's Mom/Alexi Darling. Who the hell knew that woman could sing!?
In a moment that shocked me to my core, Nicole Scherzinger freakin' rocked Maureen. I rolled my eyes when they trotted her out during "Tango Maureen" because I hate anything that borrows from Columbus' movie version of this amazing story, and I felt she stole the spotlight a bit as only Maureen would tend to do. But when it came time for her solo-- even without the powerhouse entrance of riding up on the Harley-- she nailed everything from the notes to the accents. Whether or not she was purposefully trying to imitate Idina Menzel's very distinct voice doesn't even matter; she sounded enough like her to sell me while still managing to put her own little spin on the piece (by doing all of the stuff about Benny as a rap!). She made me a fan. "Take Me or Leave Me" is my benchmark of any RENT performance, and Tracie and Nicole rivaled even my dream cast pairing of Stewart (who I will never understand why she doesn't go for the bigger role!) and Menzel.
But sadly, this leaves us with Vanessa Hudgens as Mimi. Poor, poor Vanessa. She was in way over her head here. Sure, she looks the part: she's young and in great shape and even sort of resembles Daphne Rubin-Vega...when she isn't channeling Sarah Hyland, that is. I get it that NPH thought he would be promoting a film with her, so you know, stunt casting or whatever. And with him being so gung-ho about her work ethic, I was really hoping she'd do a complete star turn and prove she has the chops to go the distance. But the truth is, she doesn't.
Hudgens' voice was fine when she was staying completely stationary and focusing entirely on hitting the right notes. But that's not Mimi: Mimi is wild, emotional, and a dancer. She needs to be able to move, and her voice needs to crack with emotion, not from missing her register. Hudgens sang through her nose for the entire performance of the greatest narrative song in the play, "Light My Candle," and then missed notes left and right as she attempted to writhe and shimmy for "Out Tonight." But it wasn't entirely her fault: as her director, NPH should have seen her limitations and choreographed as such. There was no need for her to dance the bar through the audience during "Out Tonight;" it is a poignant and powerful song, and when she butchered it, the audience literally started laughing.
Similarly, Mimi is a tragic figure, doomed to her bad habits, and in the end, when she and Roger are having their good-bye moment, it is supposed to truly feel like it's the end. Even if you've seen the play before, the mark of a solid performance is that you get so wrapped up in the moment, the tears flow. Maybe it was the sheer size of the venue that allowed the disconnect, or maybe it was the fact that Hudgens' idea of simulating illness was to cough twice and then flop her head lazily to the side, but my eyes stayed dry. And this is coming from someone who hasn't seen the show since my mother passed away. I expected to be a big, balling mess whose glasses fogged up!
I think what I have learned out of all of this is that the further away we get from the original incarnation of this tale, the more free directors feel to put their own stamp of branding on it. And the larger the venue, the more mainstream it becomes, the more it looses some of its flavor and charm. I still wish I could have seen it back in the mid-nineties when Larson was workshopping it, but I will continue to chase it around the world (or at least Southern California) when it comes on tour, or gets put on by a local high school, or when other Hollywood big shots decide they want to "remake" it. Because no matter who is in the roles or what fills the stage, the story and the message are always the same. And those are the things that always resonated with me. The rest is just pretty packaging.