Saturday, August 7, 2010

Thinking About Seeing RENT At The Hollywood Bowl? Read This Instead

I really wanted them to do well. I was so willing to like them - if they were good. As it turns out, I was surprised by most of them, in both good and bad ways.

Lets start with the most obvious character that I would critique: Vanessa Hudgens as Mimi. When I first heard the news that she was cast, I was disappointed. It was obviously a choice based on celebrity and hype. That aside, I found it in myself to give this Disney pop-princess a chance. Maybe the innocent High School Musical thing wasn't her strong point (though I'm sure hordes of juveniles would disagree) and she would surprise us all as the crazy/sexy/lovable Mimi. She sure looks the part, right? Well that's where the similarities ended. She looked great in those blue pants (they looked EXACTLY like the ones I wore in Alabama, I wonder if they were rented from the same company) but no amount of abs and legs could make up for her performance. From the first few notes she sang I was embarrassed for her. Her lack of skill was so painfully evident without the help of auto tune, she was just singing notes and playing a part, instead of being fully invested in the character. It was apparent when she was specifically directed to do something and when she was not. She had no power or confidence in stillness, because she was constantly flailing her arms about trying to look natural, or visually anticipating her next direction.

Although the role may seem easy - sexy drug addict with nothing to lose - it can be very hard to make her as likable as she needs to be. The audience need to know why Roger falls in love with her, they need to understand her conviction about life and why she has it, and they need to actually care that (spoiler) she very nearly dies. I didn't get any of that. Seeing her try to act and sing was too distracting for me to be able to love the character. I just loathed Vanessa the whole time. I've been reading a lot of responses from people in last night's audience, and many applaud her for taking on such an iconic and racy role, but the guts she may have for giving it a shot are no excuse for a lousy, grade school level performance. Perhaps it was a personal best for her but I am confident that it was an all time low for the history of RENT.

Don't worry, the worst is over! I didn't hate everyone that much. Some people actually surprised me for the better. Namely Nicole Scherzinger, known for being the lead singer for the Pussycat Dolls and a judge/host on numerous reality television shows. My biggest problem with her was that I couldn't see her (as Maureen) having dated Skylar Astin (playing Mark). Other than that, she pretty much knocked my socks off. She brought a new kind of sexiness to the character, and was just as crazy and goofy, if not more so, than you'd expect of a Maureen. Her rendition of "Over The Moon", though different than any I've seen, was one of the best I've experienced. As Entertainment Weekly put it, she displayed "not a lick of fame-induced self-consciousness" throughout the whole show.

I had high hopes for Skylar, as I'm a fan of Spring Awakening and thought he was wonderful in the original cast, but right from the get go his portrayal of Mark fell flat in my eyes. His job in the beginning of the show is to introduce us to what's going on with the level of energy we're to expect for the entire show. What we got was a bit lack luster and drawn out. It seemed as if he was playing for the more emotionally intense second act right from the beginning instead of bringing the joy and sarcasm to Mark that is expected. Though the acting wasn't on point, his voice did sound great and blended well with Roger.

On that note, and much to my surprise, Aaron Tveit played a great Roger. Having first seen him as a young congressman on Gossip Girl, I didn't believe he had the grit to portray an convincing Roger. I was very glad that I made the wrong assumption. He had a very natural melancholy about his character, which made the moments that he was actually happy that much more exciting. Aside from looks, I cannot imagine a more ill-fitted pair of him against Vanessa Hudgens. He definitely has the acting chops needed for the role and played it very well.

Evan's biggest worry was in the casting of Wayne Brady as Collins. I personally thought he would have made a much better Benny, but his Collins was fine. I would have hoped for a little more connection to his most emotional song, "I'll Cover You (Reprise)", and he made it very apparent when switching between a bass and baritone register, but the acting was there and in the end so was the voice. Telly Leung (Angel) was fine as well. Having recently found out that one of my current Chess cast mates was originally hand picked to be Angel in this production, I was a little disappointed in Telly's caliber. Both this cast mate of mine and my darling Benjamin Alicea (who played my Angel in the two productions of RENT I did) would have presented a more dynamic character. Alas, Telly was cast and and he wasn't bad.

Tracie Toms stood out as one of the people that felt most comfortable, and really commanded the stage. Her voice as well as acting and connection to the story and other characters was admirable. At least there was one person in the cast I was sure wouldn't let me down, and she was it. I had no expectations for
Collins Pennie as Benny, as I'd never heard of him before. He was, to quote the show like a super geek, "less than brilliant". His voice was fine, his acting was ok, but he just didn't exude the Benny spirit. He seemed too juvenile, and at no point did I see the connection between Benny and Mimi. That's an often overlooked but very integral plot line.

I was unsure of what they were going to do with an extra 10 ensemble members. The show is traditionally done with a cast of 15 people, maybe 16 people, but since the venue is so large I understand the desire to fill the stage more. It is, after all, supposed to be set in the busy streets of New York. The ensemble truly did support the entire show so well.
David Burtka had the great honor of being the "Will I" soloist and made every renthead proud. The rest of the song didn't go as well, with only 2 rounds of voices going at any time rather than 4 as it's written. The end result, as said by my former director, is supposed to be a wall of sound. I'd call this more of a picket fence of sound. It could have been better.

When I did the show in Rancho Cucamonga earlier this year, it was an honor to have Gwen Stewart come to see it and praise it. She revived her role as the "Seasons Of Love" soloist beautifully, and the added soloists didn't bother me much at all. That's one of the songs that, while the original cast recording is well known, it's not set in stone. The soloists have the freedom to make it their own, and it ended up pretty darn cool.

Overall, I'd give the production a C. Some people were really incredible, others were embarrassing, and still others were nearly forgettable. If you believe my opinion is biased because I've performed in the show before, I'd advise you to check out my boyfriend's review at

If you've never seen RENT before, I wouldn't recommend this as your first go around. It's not much better than the movie, but poor miss Hudgens literally ruins the whole thing. There, I said it.

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