Theater Review: Rent @ The Hollywood Bowl; Los Angeles, CA
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“Would you light my….LINE!?”
Show me another four staged productions of Rent and I might actually be able to remember what song comes next. You’ll make a theater man of me someday, Nicci! For now at least, my girlfriend has had a hand in my seeing five or six different incarnations of the rock musical. At this point I’m not ashamed to say I know a lot about the show, its message, and how to critique the actors and musicians on stage.
I first learned about the Hollywood Bowl Rent production when Nicci was acting in the show (as Mimi) during the excellent Lewis Family Playhouse production at the beginning of 2010. She and her cast excitedly spoke of auditioning together, trying to get the word out about their own production in the hopes that some casting director would read it. No one really spoke about it at the time, but perhaps subconsciously they all knew that a glitzy, one-weekend-only Los Angeles musical at the famed Hollywood Bowl might wind up being more of a star-studded event than an attempt to put forth the highest-quality cast imaginable. They all auditioned, none of them made it (not even Nicci’s assistant director, who played Maureen on Broadway, was cast in the show). As details about the Hollywood Bowl cast leaked, it became a bit of a lark. The most obvious bad decision was Vanessa Hudgens as Mimi, but I didn’t like the idea of Wayne Brady as Collins either. The rest of the cast I would wait to pass judgment on until I’d seen it in person.
Yesterday after work we drove over to the Bowl. It’s worth noting, firstly, that the geniuses over at the Silver Lake Cheese Shop put together an awesome Hollywood Bowl picnic spread with various meats, cheeses and breads. A bottle of red wine later, we were ready for the show to begin. It is also worth noting that in the weeks leading up to the show, Nicci seemingly shifted views in relation to the show. At first she was intrigued and excited by the idea, but last night before the lights went down and the show began, she was clearly exhibiting signs that hinted anticipation that this Rent would be a disaster. It was nice to have her along for the ride.
We weren’t that far off. Skylar Astin (as Mark, previously known as Georg in Spring Awakening) looked uncomfortable and sounded unsure for the duration of the show. His shoulders perpetually tensed, his voice never resonated. His lines never really hit you the way Mark’s bold claims and descriptions of events unfolding on-stage should. There is no doubt that he can sing, but Mark’s harmonies (most of which are the lower-half of two-part harmonies) and his solos never quite materialized in the way I’ve come to expect. Aaron Tveit (Roger, previously Gabe in Next To Normal, also some guy on that show Gossip Girl Nicci loves) definitely had the vocal chops to succeed at the part, and appeared to be the most confident of the principal cast members. But oh, when that gangly young thing Vanessa Hudgens sauntered on stage for the first time to sing “Light My Candle,” would you believe me if I told you it was laughable? Her very first line was delivered with such a thick Latina inflection people around us were giggling. I wondered if maybe Hudgens had hired Rosie Perez as an accent coach. After that one line, though, that character trait literally disappeared. Maybe she felt our embarrassment for her. The poor thing, she was clearly way out of her element on stage. Nicci said that her flailing arms and legs plus her inability to do anything to fill the spaces between her actions showed that she had absolutely no idea how to act when she wasn’t being directed to do something specific. As for her voice, she hit nary on a note on the bottom end of her vocal range, and exhibited marginal control at best of her belting voice. Wayne Brady (as Collins, previously known as the annoying guy on Who’s Line Is It Anyway and the host of his own daytime talk show) I’d give a pass were it not for his complete lack of emotion during one of the show’s most heartrending songs, “I’ll Cover You (Reprise).” If a less soulful, gutless rendition of the song exists somewhere in this universe, its best chance at being heard will be tonight or tomorrow night at the Hollywood Bowl. He was the most obvious choice on stage as the guy who was “acting,” which is to say he did absolutely nothing to embody his role. He had difficulty shifting from his unnatural booming bass register to his natural baritone during both the aforementioned reprise and “Santa Fe.” He could have been a wonderful Benny, but as Collins he was not enjoyable to watch. The guy who did play Benny…not-a-so-good! Telly Leung has Angel put forth a good effort. I liked him. Nicci said something about his singing being a bit one-dimensional but he was very well composed during “Today 4 U.”
The bright spots in the cast were clearly Tracie Thoms (as Joanne, previously known as Joanne in the Rent movie) and Nicole Scherzinger (Maureen, previously known as one of the Pussycat Dolls). Scherzinger, especially, was a welcome surprise. Her unique, silly take on “Over The Moon” was definitely one of the best (if not the best) renditions I’ve seen. She has a wonderful voice, too. I don’t know from the Pussycat Dolls other than they dress like skanks and are a girl group, but I’m sure her talents are being wasted.
It seems like an obvious excuse, but I think the setting also had a lot to do with the failures of this Rent. On such a huge stage, playing to nearly 20,000 people, the air was much more that of an outdoor concert than musical theater. What’s more, the action occurring across the stage looked so disconnected from afar it was nearly impossible to take your eyes off the jumbo-trons flanking the Bowl. As for the direction of Neil Patrick Harris…I’m not quite sure what to say. Segments of the show were cut entirely from the production (most notably the orgy scene “Contact” but also “Seasons of Love B” and the short reprise of “Santa Fe” before the finale). They only had a week to rehearse, so I imagine they probably stuck to singing and choreography. Even so, what is usually the strongest song of any Rent production, “La Vie Boheme” was flat last night. Each of those references sung/shouted by the company needs to hit you like a punch. Unfortunately, this is a show about unconditional love, and at no point during the show did I sense any care, acceptance, or love between the actors on stage. Like I said, it was a concert. It wasn’t theater. There was no love involved. I’m not sure I blame NPH for the Vanessa Hudgens atrocity — the blame would be better placed at the feet of whoever casted this show — but he could have done a little more to make her not look like a fish out of water for two hours.
The expanded ensemble was a joy to hear when stripped of the sound problems which plagued the evening. One of my favorite Rent songs to hear is “Will I?”, which is a round sung by the entire company. In most productions, you have four groups singing rounds, which creates a colorful, stunning wall of noise. Last night the company sang but two rounds, and the song had no impact at all. David Burtka, who begins that song, had a beautiful voice. Gwen Stewart once again singing the “Seasons Of Love” solo (she was the original Broadway soloist) was outstanding. If it weren’t for the sound engineer constantly turning down the ensembles microphones in favor of the principals, some of the songs might have sounded better. Instead, we had one or two moments of no sound, and too many muddled mixes for any of the songs to really impress.
The expanded band, on the other hand (look at me, I’m practically a poet spinning such bold rhymes), was not a success. The string section, the woodwinds and the horns were completely unnecessary. The grittiness of the “rock” in the “rock musical” was lost. Instead, the superfluous embellishments sounded out-of-place, misguided. At one point Nicci commented that the little trills sounded like musical cues from a schmaltzy episode of Family Matters. Using original musical director Tim Weil was a great idea in theory, but the additional musicians offered less-than-desirable results.
Rent is the kind of show that really transcends musical theater, for better and for worse. When a show is deemed culturally acceptable and important enough to transform into a major motion picture, you know its doing something right. The soundtrack is wildly popular. If ever a rock opera were to be staged at the Hollywood Bowl, Rent would be a fitting choice. Unfortunately, this production is riddled with flaws. As I stated earlier, it’s more of a concert than a show. The message of unconditional love is lost with these actors on this stage. If you’ve never seen a production of Rent before, do not allow this to be your first experience. Please, promise me you’ll save your eyes and ears from Vanessa Hudgens? If not for you…do it for your children. C.
Take that, Entertainment Weekly. A-? What fucking show were you watching!?
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