Aaron Tveit
Aaron Tveit
When will the Hollywood Bowl quit attempting full Broadway productions and instead just present concert versions of musicals? As once again proved by Neil Patrick Harris' production of Jonathan Larson's Pultizer Prize-winning musical Rent, even the best actors are not capable of giving truly intimate performances in venues this vast. Instead, the show works best in numbers like "Seasons of Love" where the cast can just stand and sing and deliver moments of magic.

There's certainly no shortage of talent in the show, which tells the story of a bunch of downtrodden young New Yorkers attempting to live "la vie Boheme" while dealing with the specter of AIDS. As lead characters Roger and Mark, Broadway hotties Aaron Tveit and Skylar Astin sing very well and manage to periodically give shadows of real performances, but neither wholly inhabit his character.

Kicking the show into its highest gear is Pussycat Doll singer Nicole Scherzinger, who rocks the stage as Mark's ex-lover Maureen. Sassy, defiant, sexy, and delightfully funny, she's an oasis in an often banal first act. Her rendition of "Over The Moon" is so vivacious that she gets us to moo -- not because we feel we're meant to, but because we want to share in her joyful noise.

Scherzinger is perfectly matched with Tracie Thoms, repeating her movie role of Joanne. The pair's big duet, " Take Me Or Leave Me" is the show's most dynamic number. Conversely, Wayne Brady is pleasant if a bit too low-key as Tom Collins and Telly Leung's interpretation of his drag-queen lover, Angel, is a bit too butch. Simply put, he needs to "diva it up."

Still, the production's biggest misstep proves to be the stunt casting of High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens as the drug-addicted, sexually-experienced Mimi. Wathching Hudgens, who comes off as the most virginal stripper ever, is akin to viewing a YouTube video of a 7-year-old smutting it up to Beyonce's "Single Ladies." Moreover, her singing voice is weaker than expected. After a tepid "Light My Candle," she sounded winded on "Out Tonight." And when she's supposed to be strung out on drugs, she looks and sounds like she's nonchalantly hanging at the mall with her pals.

Harris, who made an outstanding Mark in the 1990s, has made some curious choices -- many of which will anger the show's longtime fans, such as cutting several essential numbers, like the erotic "Contact," and the reprise of "Santa Fe." Another peculiar decision is the use of an expanded orchestra, including woodwinds, brass, and strings. While some of these symphonic arrangements enhance the show -- "Your Eyes" is particularly haunting as it perfectly blends rock and chamber music -- the essential "grunge" feeling of Rent has disappeared.