By Whitney Pastorek
Updated August 07, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT
Rent, Identified | RENT Aaron Tveit and Vanessa Hudgens
Credit: Phil McCarten/Mathew Imaging

Despite the unexpected success enjoyed by Rent — the scruffy little musical about starving artists in the East Village that grew into a worldwide phenomenon simply by celebrating the concept of being an us for once, instead of a them — it is safe to say that the joyous, super-sized, thoroughly Tinseltown production directed by Neil Patrick Harris for three performances this weekend at L.A.’s Hollywood Bowl is not something the show’s late creator Jonathan Larson could have foreseen. Then again, the tragedy of Rent‘s journey from labor of love to multimillion-dollar franchise is that Larson (who died of an aortic dissection the night before the show opened off-Broadway in 1996) never saw any of it at all.

It has been left, then, to Larson’s family — both biological and theatrical — to maintain the spirit of the piece, and Rent may have no better West Coast advocate than Harris, who won acclaim as over-intellectual filmmaker Mark Cohen in the show’s 1997 Los Angeles production. Harris has since grown into something of a national entertainment treasure, and at times it feels as though he hoisted this production to the stage of the cavernous Bowl through charismatic showbiz chutzpah alone. Honestly, who else would even think to transplant a musical so closely associated with New York grit and grime (fabricated though it may have been on Broadway) to this gleaming white amphitheater in the Hollywood Hills — and who else could make us grin rather than cringe at the possibility?

With splashy new orchestrations by original Rent musical director Tim Weil and the addition of 10 extra ensemble members, Harris’ take is designed to reach all 17,000-plus seats of the Bowl, even if the action on stage, aided awkwardly by Jumbotrons, can’t quite expand to fill the space. In truth, this might as well have been a concert version of the show for everyone outside the first few rows, and Harris’ directorial nuance, such as it is, proves no competition for sheer square footage. The concert experience is extremely enjoyable, however, with iconic group numbers like ”La Vie Boheme,” ”Seasons of Love,” and the title track showing no signs of wear on their exuberant tires. Opening night suffered from a couple sluggish moments (”Light My Candle,” ”What You Own”) and some pesky sound problems (microphones cutting out, odd surges in the orchestral mix), but the squeals of joy at the start of each beloved song made it clear that the Rentheads in the cheap seats didn’t much mind.

The cast — a patchwork crew of Rent veterans, musical theater pros, and box office-juicing celebrities, all working on a week or so of rehearsal — does remarkable justice to characters built for and around their original actors. Erstwhile Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger pulls off a slinky and hilarious Maureen, wringing legitimate laughs from the ridiculous performance art of ”Over the Moon” and displaying not a lick of fame-induced self-consciousness. Aaron Tveit (Broadway’s Next to Normal) brings welcome polish and confidence to lonesome rocker Roger; Telly Leung sings the crap out of doomed drag queen Angel; and original cast member Gwen Stewart returns to make her trademark solo in ”Seasons of Love” soar. Reprising her role from the best-not-dwelled-upon Rent feature film, Tracie Thoms is a steady and trustworthy Joanne — her head-to-head duet with Scherzinger on ”Take Me or Leave Me” was a showstopper — and comedian Wayne Brady is a flat-out revelation as noble anarchist Tom Collins, revealing powerful chops heretofore underutilized by populist atrocities like Let’s Make a Deal.

As Mark, Spring Awakening‘s Skylar Astin is, unfortunately, a weak link: It’s a thankless part, but he’s missing a certain narrative zing that no stripey scarf ‘n’ sweater combo can replace, and occasionally invites unwelcome comparisons to the character of Ted on Harris’ day-job sitcom, How I Met Your Mother. (Maybe it’s the hair.) But while young Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical is clearly out of her dramatic depths as HIV-positive stripper/junkie Mimi — she lacks both the gravitas and the crazy to inhabit the role — she generally succeeds due to low expectations and a surprisingly well-controlled voice. It’s not every day you find a Disney-bred pop princess willing to set reputation aside and writhe about in blue latex pants (apologies, Miley); Hudgens gives it everything she’s got, winning bonus points for bravery that very nearly make up for the fact that she really cannot (spoiler alert?) convincingly almost-perish on stage.

Harris keeps the trains running on time — choosing to go with an Angel-sung abstract reprise of ”Out Tonight” rather than the drawn-out eroticism of ”Contact” in the second act was probably a good call for the Bowl demographic — and he emphatically keeps the throbbing, sleeve-borne heart of Rent intact. Nowadays, a lot of the show’s central social issues feel dated, even nostalgic: The American AIDS crisis is no longer of urgent concern to many, Manhattan has fallen to the hands of the developers, Lady Gaga is busy demonstrating that art-school weirdos aren’t inherently destined for a life of squatting in abandoned tenements. But Rent‘s less time-specific message — all that touchy-feely, hopey-changey, ”no day but today” stuff — continues to be worth cultivating, and this brief revival at the Hollywood Bowl is a welcome reminder of how a rock ‘n’ roll rewrite of La Boheme managed to move so many people in the first place. For all the mind-blowing developments that followed its humble beginnings, Rent‘s enduring emotional connection to its audience is what matters here. And if you think about it, that’s probably just what Jonathan Larson had in mind. A-

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