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Neil Patrick Harris directs 'Rent' at the Hollywood Bowl: In which we salute the bravery of Vanessa Hudgens

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Image Credit: PRN/PR PhotosShe didn’t suck.

Yes, for all the sturm und drang surrounding Neil Patrick Harris’ decision to cast shiny High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens as drug-addled, HIV-positive stripper Mimi in his Hollywood Bowl production of RENT — you know you’ve hit a nerve when former NYU theater school student Perez Hilton sincerely freaks out — her first performance last night wasn’t an embarrassment for anyone. (You can read my review of the production at EW’s theater hub.)

Vocally, her performance was competent, if not stellar; more Glee than Broadway, but with no need for Auto-Tune. And though Hudgens doesn’t come anywhere near the necessary emotional heft or possess a visible understanding of what it means to be homeless, penniless, strung out, and dying of a terrifying disease, she does, at least, look 16. (Or as Mimi might sing, “I’m 19, but I’m old for my age.” Hudgens is 21.) She flung herself wholeheartedly into the wall-to-wall choreography of “Out Tonight” (which left her panting), and brought an endearing sweetness to the love songs, transforming Mimi from a baggage-carrying basket case into an eyelash-batting romantic. It occurred to me as I watched her skip off stage after the curtain call that her wide eyes and eager energy were possibly less a character choice and more a reaction to the thousands of people packed into the Bowl. I’m as fierce a defender of RENT as they come — I graduated from NYU’s theater school a few years before Perez, and let’s just say you did not want to be near me after I saw the movie — but against my better judgment, I liked Hudgens, and I like that she took this chance.

Check out the full review and then feel free to come back and discuss your thoughts on the wonderfully enduring legacy of RENT. Celebrity stunt casting has long been a sticky wicket for American theater loyalists — given Hudgens’ flawed-but-admirable effort last night (and the outstanding performances of both Wayne Brady and Nicole Scherzinger), is it possible we’ve moved through grief/anger/bargaining and can try a little acceptance? (I know, I know. Just humor me, ok?)