Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Tick, Tick... Boom!
BoHo Theatre
Review by Christine M. Malcom


Alec Phan and Luke Halpern,
and Jenn Udoni (background)

Photo by Franco Images Photography
To close its 2022-2023 season, BoHo Theatre is presenting its first musical since 2019, an all trans and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) production of Jonathan Larson's Tick, Tick... Boom!. In keeping with the mission expressed by director Bo Frazier, the show is a moving, joyous celebration in addition to being tremendously enjoyable and overall well-executed.

Although the Edge Theater lends itself to traditional staging, scenic designer Bek Lambrecht generates the sense of intimacy the show requires with a static set that sets the three actors against the backdrop of any given club in the late twentieth century.

Most of the show's band is huddled on risers slightly upstage center, with the drummer shielded, both visually and sonically, upstage right. Floor-to-ceiling wooden scaffolding houses props and costume pieces and defines one proscenium smaller than that of the actual stage, and metal "club" scaffolding creates an even more intimate (and, by extension, claustrophobic) space.

In the rare instances where scenes call for furniture, the rolling gear cases familiar to anyone in any performance field get the job done, not just in practical terms, but also in service of the show's central theme: How much does the "true" artist sacrifice to their art? Viewed in this light, the slightly awkward moments where an actor has to curl up on a case, or two actors have to deliver their lines while making sure a case's brakes are on, are emblematic of how invested the director, actors, and all involved are in the questions Larson raises in this show.

Although the interiors must evoke the close quarters that the main characters have to weather, it is also critical to the story that New York in all its seductive, destructive glory surround the characters. Sound designer Eric Backus (sound engineering by Lynsy Folckomer) and lighting designer Piper Kirchhofer carry this off with hard, well-timed light and sound cues that capture the buzz and hustle as well as the city's lurid colors.

Liliana Otero's costumes begin with a solid visual foundation for each of the three main characters. Johnathan, in dark neutrals, sports baggy cords, rolled to the top of his black Doc Martens, and a button-down over a T-shirt. Susan's black-and-grey a-line miniskirt and black turtleneck, paired with ankle boots and her hair in blonde puffs, convey that the character is sexy and creative, yet worlds more mature than her boyfriend. Michael, who has traded in the grind of a New York actor for the monetary success of a career in marketing, and wears an argyle sweater vest and dark, pleated, office-appropriate slacks. When the actors portraying Susan and Michael occasionally shift into the roles of other minor characters, Otero adds blazers, flannels, and furs that have seen better days to facilitate quick changes.

The music is a wonderful blend of genres. The songs are not just enjoyable in their own right, but they cheekily take Jonathan to task for his occasional, insufferable critiques of Broadway as it is and the Broadway he envisions himself breaking into with a "real" rock musical. There's appealing "bubble gum" mixed in with the driving punk and grunge vibes, and it's notable that, although there are clearly some precursors to the music from Larson's Rent, this show is decidedly its own creative entity.

Choreographer Jamal Howard captures both the joy and anxiety of the show wonderfully, from Johnathan and Susan's mutual seduction in "Green, Green Dress" to the furious, hilariously stilted body work in "Therapy." Conductor and pianist Harper Abigail Caruso, overall, guides the cast through the demanding songs, although the opening and closing songs had a few iffy moments where the actors' voices did not quite blend as expected at the performance I attended.

Alec Phan leads the cast with a remarkable performance as Jonathan. This is good news for the production, as Tick, Tick... Boom! certainly bears the traces of its history as Larson's one-man show before its expansion to a three-person cast.

Phan's take on the anxiety and neuroticism of the main character is low-key and rather internal early on. The opening night audience was decidedly pumped and raucous, but Phan deftly pulled their attention in to establish the title concepts: the ticking clock as Jonathan's twenties draw to a close; and the conviction that everything is sure to implode if the impending workshop of his masterpiece does not turn out to be an express elevator to success. Phan repays the audience's patience and attention with gorgeous, sweeping moments as they describe the fear coursing through Jonathan and rising up and out, as he begs Susan to stay and processes Michael's devastating news.

As Susan, Luke Halpern is an absolute scene stealer in the best possible way. The only unfortunate thing is that the character is rather underdeveloped, but it's a good problem indeed to have an actor who makes the audience want more of them. Halpern does a great deal with the material the script gives to Susan. They convey the character's true empathy and love for Jonathan, but also her utter weariness at the work it takes to be his partner and maintain healthy boundaries, all while navigating the trade-offs required by living as an artist in New York. Halpern is also delightfully funny in the broadly comic role of Jonathan's chain-smoking, elusive agent, as well as being impressively nuanced in their portrayal of the leading lady in Jonathan's musical, and they bring down the house in "Come to Your Senses."

Like Halpern, Crystal Claros does strong work in fleshing out the character of Michael, who is also somewhat underdeveloped. They impart a strong enough sense of self to Michael that he becomes something more than a simplistic foil for Jonathan and the choices that the two make–to end the suffering the artistic life demands, or to double-down on it–becoming not superficial opposites, but imperfect, difficult options for living.

BoHo Theatre's Tick, Tick... Boom! runs through February 5, 2023, at The Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit www.bohotheatre.com.


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