Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Larson left behind many unfinished songs and musicals, including a semi-autobiographical one he had performed several times as a solo piece, Tick, Tick... Boom!. That show was expanded by playwright David Auburn into a three-character musical that premiered Off-Broadway in 2001. Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre is concluding a two-week run of the show in a fairly successful production with two different casts of young performers taking on this challenging show that tackles the fear of growing older and of being under constant pressure to succeed.
Set in New York City in 1990, the plot centers on Jonathan, a promising, young songwriter about to turn 30, who works in a diner and fears his plans to be a successful musical theatre songwriter will never come to fruition. His best friend and roommate Michael gave up acting and found success in the world of marketing research, and Jonathan's girlfriend Susan is a dancer who makes ends meet by teaching ballet to rich, untalented girls. Susan also has recently brought up the idea of moving with Jonathan to New England where they could have a more normal life and even a place with a dishwasher. Can Jonathan stick to his guns without resorting, like Michael, to "selling out" and giving up his artistic dreams, or will the continual tick of the clock as his 30th birthday quickly approaches cause his mounting anxiety to "boom"?
While Rent also focused on young adults with creative talents trying to find their way in the world, Tick, Tick... Boom! is clearly based on Larson's life, since, like the character in the musical, Larson also worked in a diner and was also under constant pressure to succeed and for his songs to find an audience. Michael and Susan are also based on real characters in Larson's life. Stephen Sondheim was a mentor to Larson and the musical incorporates elements of that relationship into its plot. Larson even used fragments of some of Sondheim's compositions in the score.
Auburn incorporated pieces into this show from another Larson unproduced work, Superbia, which becomes the musical that Jonathan is working on in Tick, Tick... Boom!, and his revised and expanded book does a fairly good job of connecting the songs while slightly fleshing out the characters. Larson's score is varied and melodic, with gorgeous solos, duets and trios, both serious and comedic. However, like some of the songs in Rent, there is also a sense that a few of the songs aren't quite finished and could have used another polish. Unfortunately, Larson wasn't around to fine tune them (or those few songs in Rent) or make them fit more closely to the characters of this revised version of what was originally a one-man show. On one hand, that's a disservice to this musical. On the other, it's nice that they didn't bring in another composer to rewrite the songs that Larson had originally created and the show actually serves somewhat as a love letter to Larson and his creative process, since it basically depicts what was going on in Larson's mind and life the few years before the success of Rent.
Directors Mark and Lynzee 4man have found a wonderful trio of local young actors to depict the three friends in the show, and their direction and staging, plus the energy of the cast, result in an emotionally vibrant production. While the trio of actors are all several years shy of hitting 30, and they occasionally struggle with the sustained notes and challenging nature of the score, they all do a fairly good job of depicting characters older than they actually are.
As Jonathan, Hayden Skaggs brings a heightened sense of urgency to this role of the frustrated and unsuccessful artist who is constantly anxious and almost always on the edge. Skaggs is also vulnerable, charming and funny as Jonathan, with a sweet yet mature singing voice. Bailey Gorman and Cate Carlino play Michael and Susan, respectively, as well as a few other supporting characters. They both are solid in their portrayals and all three do especially good work in the dramatic moments.
Mark 4man's music direction achieves good sounds from the cast and his prerecorded tracks are wonderful. While this isn't a heavy dance show, Lynzee 4man's choreography provides fun steps that are additive to the dramatic and comedic moments. The set design by Ally Baumlin is simple but effective with just a few chairs, a table, an onstage piano, and a raised center platform to depict the various locations in the show plus a large painted clock face on the stage floor and a beautifully creative backdrop. Bret Reese's lighting design provides colorful, lush hues and Tom Holmberg's sound design ensures the vocals are clear and crisp.
Tick, Tick... Boom! is a musical about a group of friends, one man's life before success, and the struggle of chasing your dreams without having to detour from them. It is and a beautiful reminder of what can be accomplished when someone is talented and determined. It's fortunate Jonathan Larson didn't give up on his dreams, but the show is also a heartbreaking reminder of what Larson could have accomplished if he'd only lived longer.
Desert Stages has implemented many safety protocols for this production, in line with both city and state requirements, including limiting the audience capacity, socially distanced seating, and a mask requirement for all audience members. A list of all safety requirements can be found on their website.
Tick, Tick... Boom! runs through May 16, 2021, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre at Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale AZ. Tickets and information are available at desertstages.org or by phone at 480-483-1664.
Co-Directors: Mark and Lynzee 4man