The most enduring features of the late Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” — its indomitable spirit and stirring melodies — are honored in the Hollywood Bowl’s 14th-anniversary recreation. Novice Neil Patrick Harris, marshalling an artfully chosen ensemble, handles the intimate moments delicately enough to support the confident addition of “helmer” to his seemingly endless list of showbiz accomplishments.
Angela Wendt’s costume designs respect the iconography: Indie rocker Roger (Aaron Tveit) still wears those ghastly plaid pants, videographer Mark (Skylar Astin) the striped scarf. And Evan A. Bartoletti designs the traditional makeshift Alphabet City of wood and scrap metal, a normally unwieldy Bowl stage yielding interesting simultaneous views of multiple settings. Original musical director Tim Weil provides continuity with the Pulitzer winner’s past, as does “Seasons of Love” soloist Gwen Stewart, plangent as ever.
But the big news is how freshly it all plays out. This is “Rent” free of the insufferable self-importance of its final Gotham years and tours, during which the dramatic tuner morphed into a mummified congratulatory tribute with zero spontaneity, no less mannered than a 400-year-old Kabuki drama.
Not so at the Bowl, where Harris’ friends and lovers keep learning about each other in subtle ways we don’t even need the Jumbotron screens to follow. Wary of further damage, these Avenue B drifters battling AIDS and their own worst instincts resist opening up, interactions rich with the subtext of everyday life. (By contrast, the 2005 movie adaptation was notable for insisting on hugfests at every opportunity.)
Familiar roles derive new life through unexpected approaches. Broadway baby Tveit (“Next to Normal”), lacking Adam Pascal’s authentic grunge sensibility, achieves his own arresting brand of self-loathing introspection. Astin’s cautious sensitivity is ideal for loner Mark, clearly no match for powerhouse ex-squeeze Maureen (Nicole Scherzinger, genuinely funny in her “Over the Moon” performance piece).
More conventionally, Wayne Brady’s Collins, Telly Leung’s Angel and Tracie Thoms — re-creating her movie role of Joanne, the pic’s best perf — all score strongly.
As there are easier ways to break out of “High School Musical” blandness than taking on crack ho Mimi, Vanessa Hudgens gains points for holding nothing back in her high-octane singing and erotic dancing ordinarily not seen outside the confines of a gentlemen’s club. (Thanks to Jamal Sims and “Dancing With the Stars” champ Scherzinger, this is arguably the supplest “Rent” ever.) Hudgens reminds one of Linda Ronstadt in “Pirates of Penzance” two decades ago: clearly a bit out of her depth, but so winning and vulnerable you’re inclined to cut the gal a break. And her acting requires no apologies.
Harris and Sims can do nothing coherent with the large group numbers, whose lyrics are impossible to make out anyway. But when five or fewer thesps take the stage, the show has rarely sounded better; nor has its emotional impact been more legitimately earned.