tick, tick ... BOOM!
There are a few reasons for this. One is the really enjoyable staging and cast at the Aux Dog Theatre, but we'll get to that later. Another is the sheer likeability of Jonathan Larson, who wrote the script, music and lyrics. A third reason is that we, the audience, know what Jonathan Larson did not know when he wrote this piece in 1990 at age 30: that he would go on to write Rent but that he would die at age 35 of an aortic aneurysm one day before it opened on Broadway. Has there ever been a sadder story in the history of musical theater?
That's why it is a pleasure that we have this document of his life as a self-doubting but ever-optimistic composer before he hit it big (which is something he would never experience). Larson used to do this as a one-man show, but, some years after his death, it was retooled into a three-person show by David Auburn, and it works very well this way.
The story is the typical one of a young artist whose talent has not been recognized, nor even proven yet. There is the move to New York City (in this case, all the way from White Plains), the sixth floor walkup apartment the size of a matchbox, shared with the gay roommate who turns out to have ... you can guess. There is the girlfriend who is also an aspiring performer, the breakup, the maybe getting back together. The waiting tables for a livingwhich gives us the best song, about Sunday brunch. The read-through for a show that will never get produced. The agent who you think has forgotten that you exist. The cleverest bit is the deification of Stephen Sondheim, a name so holy that it should never be spoken aloud. Someone should invent a tetragrammaton for him.
Above all, there's the anxiety of turning 30 and not having made it yet. Should you give up this crazy idea of being an artist and go for the money instead? Isn't it time to settle down, or will you keep plugging away at a career in which the odds are not in your favor? Except for the ones who make it when they're young, I'm sure that every artist, no matter what the field, can see themselves to some degree in this show. tick, tick ... BOOM! is undoubtedly more popular among theater people than the general public, but it would be a shame for the public to miss out on this performance at the Aux Dog.
Scott Schuster, the director, has put together a production that works on every level. The set by Karin Pitman impressively visualizes Larson's New York, and there is no more perfect place to construct a matchbox apartment than on the Aux Dog's matchbox stage. The four-piece on-stage band, directed by Jonathan Gallegos, is very good. Lighting by Seah Johnson and costumes by Alexandra Nakelski are fine.
The lead character is named Jon. Larson doesn't even pretend that this is not autobiographical. Jason Adam Cox leaves something to be desired in the singing department, but he is just so darn likeable as Jon that he brightens up the stage and, since he never leaves it, the whole show becomes delightful. Everything he does is totally natural and winning. Brittany Reinholz as Susan, the girlfriend, acts and sings very well, and I hope to see her in more shows soon.
It's almost always a mistake to cast Gilbert Sanchez in a supporting role, because he's always going to be the most charismatic guy in the room, but it works here. He tones it down a bit as Michael, the best friend, and as usual is excellent. It will be a sad day for Albuquerque musical theater when Gilbert takes off for New York this April. With a smile that deserves its own zip code, emotive eyes, and a voice out of Andrew Lloyd Webber's dreams, he should find success in a lot less time than it took Jonathan Larson, if there is any justice in the big city.
The show moves at a good clip, and the songs are for the most part well-integrated. They are not all my cup of tea, and the melodies don't stick with you, but generally the lyrics are clever. One song about Twinkies is a total throw-away, but with the demise of Hostess bakeries, it has taken on nostalgic value. The whole show has a whiff of nostalgia about it, especially for those of us way past 30 who remember what it was like approaching that dreaded age. And there is a happy ending supplied by a literal deus ex machina (the telephone answering type), and yes, that is Stephen Sondheim's voice that you are hearing.
tick, tick ... BOOM! by Jonathan Larson is being presented at the Aux Dog Theatre in Albuquerque through March 3, 2013. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00. Reservations and info at www.auxdog.com or 505-254-7716.