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Uneven 'Rent' often lacks the spirit of its setting

Nearly 10 years, countless awards, and dozens of touring companies into the still-vibrant life of "Rent'' - Jonathan Larson's re-imagining of Puccini's "La Boheme'' - the show's flaws and achievements hardly require more analysis. Suffice it to say the non-Equity production playing at the Wang Theatre through Sunday is an uncanny mirror of the rock musical's inherent highs and lows, with a handful of genuinely thrilling musical moments, occasional flashes of heartbreaking humanity, and long stretches of mildly stirring, moderately inspired theater.

By far, this cast's strong suit is its ensemble numbers and duets. Roger (played with angry-rocker insolence by understudy Jeff Scot Carey) and Mimi (Jaime Lee Kirchner, who wears both vinyl and a heroin habit persuasively) collided with genuine electricity on ``Light My Candle'' and ``Without You.'' They're ill-matched in every way - physically, vocally, and temperamentally - and it only underlined the desperation of the bonds that form in these trapped quarters: a starving artists' enclave in New York's East Village. On a lighter note, Mark and Joanne (Brian Gligor and Rebecca Jones, both charmingly normal) made delightful farce of their common and problematic love interest in ``Tango: Maureen.''

Larson's beloved and well-known showstoppers are, as ever, the showstoppers. "La Vie Boheme'' and "Seasons of Love'' shine not merely because they're the most distinctive and memorable songs in ``Rent.'' They also supplied a welcome visual diversion from what began to feel like an endless series of squatter tableaux with indeterminate rock tunes to match. The row of bodies lining the front of the stage for ``Seasons of Love'' was as stark and vivid as the song's lyrics, and in that setting the arrival of a simple handclap was fabulously dynamic.

Likewise the smattering of choreography in ``La Vie BohÁeme'' - as well as ``Santa Fe'' and the cleverly contrapuntal ``Christmas Bells'' - infused the mood with neon-caliber color.

Most of all, though, the energy put out by the group was a crackling blaze compared to the flickering flame generated by individual performances. Only Marcus Paul James, as Tom Collins, sang with the sort of dazzling conviction and gorgeous tones that lifts the audience up by the collective collar. His second act reprise of ``I'll Cover You'' offered a taste of emotional and musical heft that one wishes were a more consistent feature of the production.

The sound was a problem that compounded the solo perfomances. Inconsistent miking and a too-quiet band contributed to an oddly lackluster sheen that seemed to coat, and mute, so many of the songs. Granted, some of the songs are just plain lackluster. And some of the actor/singers were as well - in particular Damien DeShaun Smith, whose thin voice and constrained personality deprived Tom's tranvestite lover, Angel, of much zeal and tenderness.

In the end the production offers only a whiff of the spontaneity and abandon that line the streets of bohemia. Without that, it's nearly impossible to bring the place to life.

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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