Now a well-known name, Jonathan Larson was a virtually unknown composer and playwright before his rock musical Rent exploded on the theatre scene in New York. Before he completed Rent, Larson wrote and performed a solo show, initially called 30/90 then tick, tick ... BOOM!, which expressed his feelings about his life at that time: he turned 30 years old in 1990; he was extremely dedicated to his work, yet hadn't had anything produced; he questioned some of the basic definitions of success; and felt perhaps time was running out for him to make a career of doing what he loved. Tragically, time was in fact running out for Larson as he died from an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm the night of Rent's Off Broadway dress rehearsal, January 25, 1996, at age 35. Rent opened the next day and the huge reaction it received brought it to Broadway in April of that year, and it continues to this day, having won many awards and toured extensively.
With Larson's family's approval, a group of his friends and colleagues set out to produce tick, tick ... BOOM!. Victoria Leacock and Robyn Goodman recruited director Scott Schwartz and consulted with Pulitzer prize winning author David Auburn, and the current format of the show was developed: one actor playing a character named Jonathan (based on, but not an exact image of Larson), and two actors portraying other characters (chiefly best friend Michael and girlfriend Susan). Musical director Stephen Oremus rearranged some of the songs that were solos when Larson performed the show into duets and trios, and developed them for different voices. Some material was cut, some modified, and a song from an unproduced show (Superbia), whose workshop was part of the story of tick, tick ... BOOM!, was added. As Auburn has said, it was not "exactly the tick, tick ... BOOM! that Jonathan envisioned. But it is still very much his show, the words and notes he wrote and played." The result is a humorous, touching, as well as ironic view of a young man dealing with the frustration of reaching a milestone in time before reaching the professional milestone of his life's work.
The youthful, energetic Campbell never leaves the stage and seems to never stop moving. You might think that opening the show with a monologue to the audience about the tragic pressures of turning 30 years old may not garner much sympathy with the older audience in attendance, but Campbell won them over in short order, thanks to his exuberance and passion, earnest acting and singing, and engaging presence (complete with dimples).
As Susan, Nicole Ruth Snelson brings warmth and compassion. Susan is struggling, too. She has been a dancer and is now a dance teacher. She wants to move out of New York, and she is not charmed by the Bohemian life Jonathan is comfortable in. Susan is a step beyond Jonathan - she has found something that she can do and that she wants to do. She realizes she must move on, though it breaks her heart that Jonathan is not on the same track. Snelson is a wonderful singer, and her voice adds a lot of depth to the duets and trios. "Come to Your Senses" (the song from Superbia) is her big song, and she presents it with heartfelt intensity, but she almost pushes too hard, risking overshadowing the emotion with volume. She is a delightful actress, bringing just the right amount of attention to her supporting characters.
Michael has also found what he wants to do - he has moved on from the life of the poor artist (superbly illustrated in his duet "No More" with Campbell) to the life of a successful marketing executive, with all of the material wealth it brings along. Jonathan says Michael was a very talented actor. But he didn't get cast enough and chose this new life over that of the struggling actor. He is happy with his decision, though his life is not totally hopeful. Cruz is terrific in his portrayal of Michael, and especially delightful in the minor characters he plays. He is a marvelous singer and really shines on the song "Real Life."
The versatile set fills the Byham stage, with the main stage serving as several locations (apartments, office, restaurant), while the sides of the structure offer places for actors to be visible, but not in the scene, when they are supporting the main player. The talented band sits on top of the main set piece where they provide great musical support and even take part in a little dialog. Costumes are appropriate, though the plaid shirt and suspenders worn by Jonathan do not look like something the character would wear (in fact, when developing the show, they looked for something that Larson would probably not wear, but they could have made a better choice). Another quibble is in regards to the the extremely distracting head mike wire encircling Cruz's head; his short hair offers no concealment whatsoever. Also, Snelson's hairstyle seems more 2003 than 1990. Sound is good here, as it usually is at the Byham.
All of the above mentioned components are great supporting pieces for the real star of tick, tick ... BOOM!; that is, Larson's score. Highlights are "30/90," which gets the show off to a rousing start, the poignant "Johnny Can't Decide," the aforementioned "No More," and "See Her Smile." "Louder Than Words" is a powerful anthem, delivered with great feeling by the trio - a stirring finish for the show. The songs the audience may go away remembering most, however, are two very funny and creative songs: "Therapy" and the Sondheim pastiche, "Sunday." All in all, this is a diverse group of songs, all of which fit well with the story. If nothing else, viewers can glimpse the depth of Larson's talent, and know what a loss his death was for musical theatre.
Presented by NETworks Presentations, L.L.C., tick, tick ... BOOM! continues through May 11 at the Byham Theatre. For ticket information, call (412) 456-6666 or visit Broadway Across America.
tick, tick ... BOOM!. Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Script Consultant: David Auburn. Music Supervisor/Orchestrator/Arranger: Stephen Oremus. Directed by Scott Schwartz. Set Design: Anna Louizos. Costume Design: Jimm Halliday. Lighting Design: Howell Binkley. Sound Design: Jon Weston. "Musical Staging: Christopher Gattelli.
Cast: Jonathan: Christian Campbell. Susan: Nicole Ruth Snelson. Michael: Wilson Cruz. Jonathan (matinee performances): Trey Ellett. The Band: Randy Cohen (Musical Director), Dennis J. Arcano (Asst. Musical Director), Arnold Gottlieb, Neal Johnson.