Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
One of the greatest losses ever suffered by the theater community was Larson's death on the morning of the first preview performance of his milestone musical, Rent. He was only 36 years old. It is well known that Rent went on to be a massive hit, that it gave a needed shot of adrenalin to musical theater, both as entertainment and as art, that it drew young audiences in droves to a medium they had shunned for decades, and gave a decisive boost to numerous careers. That we can only speculate as to what other great work Larson might have created is a constant sorrow.
Before Rent, Larson wrote three other musicals. The first, Saved!An Immoral Musical on the Moral Majority had a brief cabaret staging that earned Larson and his co-creator, David Glenn Armstrong, ASCAP awards. Thus armed with confidence, he embarked on Superbia, a rock musical take on George Orwell's 1984. Superbia had a workshop run and a rock-concert production, but was never picked up for full production. This huge disappointment led Larson to his third show, an autobiographical account of the writer-composer approaching his 30th birthday plagued with doubts about his prospects of success, yet unable to conceive of anything else to do with his life. Tick, Tick... Boom! was originally conceived for a sole performer backed by a rock band. It was mounted in several Off-Broadway venues and though not a hit, it drew the admiration of producer Jeffrey Seller, paving the way for Larson's masterpiece, Rent.
While not a masterpiece, Tick, Tick... Boom! is a good, albeit modest, musical, with one winning Larson song after another and a generous emotional pay-off. Minneapolis Musical Theatre, having kept a low profile for the past year, has mounted it in the close quarters of the Bryant Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater, with no scenery, modest lighting and sound design, but major talents delivering the songs and connecting storyline with full hearts.
About that storyline: after the success of Rent, there was natural interest in Larson's earlier work. David Auburn, who in 2000 had a major success with his Pulitzer Prize winning play Proof, was recruited as "script consultant" to re-work Tick, Tick... Boom!. Auburn changed it from a monologue to a play for three actors: one to play the central character, Jon; one as his best friend Michael and other small male roles; and the third as his girlfriend Susan and other small female roles. Thus re-conceived, Tick, Tick... Boom! opened off-Broadway in fall, 2001 and enjoyed a successful run, as well as a West End production and an American national tour.
The storyline is patently autobiographical. Not only did Larson give the character his own name, but also a childhood in the New York suburb of White Plains, an apartment in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood, a day job at a diner, and an aborning musical called Superbiaall straight from Larson's own biography. The characters Michael and Susan are composites of people in his life. Michael, his friend since childhood, has given up aspirations as an actor for a well-paying marketing job. Susan, a dancer, wants to leave the city for a less frenzied lifeshe suggests Cape Codand perhaps to start a family. Jon sees his impending 30th birthday as a point of reckoning. With his ambitions of musical theater greatness not yet realized, is it time to accept Michael's help landing a job uptown, or Susan's picture of a more domestic existence? Of course, we know how things turned out for the real JonIf Larson couldn't have predicted precisely the outcome, in Tick, Tick... Boom! he at least leaves us with the hope that was essential for him to persevere.
The opening number is "30/90," a reference to turning 30 years old in the year 1990. The show is pinned to the year 1990 in terms of some of the technology, cultural and historical referencesincluding a reference to then-President George H. W. Bush and to friends cut down by the AIDS epidemic. But in terms of its themes, the choices facing its characters, and its emotional resonance, it remains current, as apt for 2017 as 1990. "30/90" introduces Jon, his issues, and his relationships with Michael and Susan.
The score is less infused with rock sensibility than Rent, with a number of songs closer to pop than rock music and one, "Sunday," an outright homage to Larson's idol, Stephen Sondheim, by way of Sunday in the Park with George, trading La Grande Jatte for the bustling diner in which Jon works. Another number that wittily satirizes the syntax of couples therapy with tongue-twisting glee. All of Larson's songs are tuneful and most also advance his narrative, with standouts including "Johnny Can't Decide," "Real Life," "See Her Smile," and the emotional powerhouse "Why." Two crowd pleasers, "Green Green Dress" and "Sugar," neither move the story forward nor reveal character, but they are lively tunes that pump up the audience. "Louder than Words" wraps the show up with lessons learned and the future waiting to be lived.
Director Megan Lembke makes good use of the small stage, with clear transitions from location to location without the benefit of scenery (a few chairs and Jon's keyboard are the sum total of the "set"), and staging the musical numbers with sensitivity to their tone and place in the story. Music director Alison Shirk leads a three-piece band that splendidly brings Larson's music to vibrant life.
Without a strong presence as Jon, Tick, Tick... Boom! would likely fizzle. Matt Tatone is perfect as the aspiring composer, with a beautiful voice, swell comic sensibility, and the ability to convey the torment of being at a turning point in his life without coming across as whiny. He is ably abetted by Daniel Greco as Michael, who has a great voice of his own, and conveys a goofy presence, but opens his heart in acknowledging the compromises he has made, while Katie O'Halloran, recently returned to the Twin Cities, gives a performance that balances warmth and strength as Susan, with a neat comic sketch as Jon's elusive agent thrown in. When Jon objects to moving away from the city because he wants to be a writer, and she wants to be a dancer, O'Halloran, as Susan, responds with complete certainty, "I am a dancer," marking the contrast between her clarity and Jon's ambivalence. And she, too, has a lovely voice, rising to its full powerful in the poignant "Come to Your Senses." I hope to be seeing much more of all three actors.
Minneapolis Musical Theatre has put a bright polish on Tick, Tick... Boom!, so that its many fine points sparkle. Even if the show overall all is slight, most notable as a preamble to what Larson had in store, the quality of its score and the high caliber of the performances make it well worth seeing. If you harbor nostalgia for the days of indecision over life choices, or perhaps are currently in the throes of them, you are likely to find meaning and comfort in Jonathan Larson's tuneful epiphany.
Tick, Tick... Boom! runs through October 28, 2017, at Bryant Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater, 810 W. Lake Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $18.00 in advance, $20.00 at the door. For tickets and information on Bryant Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater call 612-825- 8949 or go to bryantlakebowl.com. For information on Minneapolis Musical Theatre go to www.aboutmmt.org.
Book, Music and Lyrics: Jonathan Larson; Script Consultant: David Auburn; Vocal Arrangements and Orchestrations: Stephen Oremus; Director: Megan Lembke; Music Director: Alison Shirk; Costume Design: Alex Kotlarek; Lighting and Audio Design: Abe Gabor; Stage Manager: Rachel Nielsen.
Cast: Daniel Greco (Michael), Katie O'Halloran (Susan, Karessa) and Matt Tatone (Jon).