The difference between a concert and a musical lies in the characters who bring a world to life onstage. But the touring cast of "Rent" playing through this weekend at the Citi Wang Theatre has forgotten about creating believable characters in an effort just to get the notes out.
Inspired in part by "La Boheme," Jonathan Larson's musical snapshot of New York City at the end of the millennium always suffered from a weak second act, but the intensity of his characters - a struggling filmmaker, a failed songwriter, a self-absorbed performance artist, a teacher, a drag queen, and an exotic dancer - captured a very particular emotional moment among friends before AIDS and other harsh realities changed everything.
The sheer energy of Larson's music usually provides an electric shock, but the show requires acting performances to match, and the inexperienced ensemble in this non-Equity production never delivers. Jed Resnick, as Mark, the filmmaker and witness to 525,600 minutes in the lives of his friends, brings no rough edges or angst to his role, making him indistinguishable from the ensemble of secondary characters. Christine Dwyer, as the bisexual performance artist Maureen, certainly has volume for "Over the Moon" and "Take Me or Leave Me," but she comes across more like a perky Gidget than a woman so hot that both men and women are attracted to her.
The marketing hook for this production is the appearance of two TV "Idol" performers. Heinz Winckler, the first winner of "South African Idol," has a terrific voice for Roger, the songwriter trying to write "One Song Glory," but he can't act his way out of a paper bag. Roger's torment dissolves into moody pouting, and his scene with the dying dancer Mimi looks like he is mugging for a silent movie. Anwar F Robinson, who made it to seventh place in season four of "American Idol" and plays the teacher Tom Collins, is a mediocre singer at best, and as far as acting goes, he doesn't even seem to be trying.
Mimi and Angel, the flamboyant drag queen, are supposed to knock our socks off, but neither Kristen-Alexzander Griffith as Angel nor Jennifer Colby Talton as Mimi can manage it. Although Angel is supposed to be a drumming busker, Griffith doesn't have the chops and walks through what's supposed to be a show-stopping "Today 4 U." Talton has the right combination of shy and dangerous attitude for "Light My Candle," but she confuses athletic with sexy, so her knockout number "Out Tonight" looks like it should be scored by Olympic gymnastic judges.
At the top of the second act, the company sings Larson's heart-breaking anthem "Seasons of Love." The song should illuminate both the vulnerability of these characters and the potential their lives hold, no matter how brief. But the lack of acting skills is most apparent here, where the performers look like they're at a choral rehearsal. Although the one unidentified soloist does find the soul of the song, she can't carry the rest of the crowd with her.
Music director Jeremy Randall leads his lackluster band through the songs with little feel, let alone groove. And once again, the sound mix in the Wang Theatre is inexcusably bad, so high notes turn to shrieks and low notes sound like mush. Fans of "Rent" should stay home and listen to the original cast recording, rather than witness this poor excuse for a production.