tick, tick … BOOM!

Musical theater lovers under the age of forty may find it hard to imagine a time when Jonathan Larson’s Rent wasn’t part of our national musical theater lexicon. 12 years and 5,124 performances on Broadway, a still ongoing National Tour, a major motion picture, and since its Broadway closing, regional theater productions galore—Rent has truly conquered the musical theater world.

But there was a time before Rent, a time before Jon Larson had even conceived of the musical which would make him and it household names, a time during which Jon struggled even to pay the rent, much like his Rent “Bohemians” Mark, Roger, and Mimi. Between 1983 and 1990, Larson devoted his creative life to writing a musical called Superbia, whose workshop production led only to: “Let us know when your next project is completed.” Seven plus years…and this is all the thanks he got.

Following Superbia’s dead-on-arrival workshop, Jon wrote a one-man-show called Tick, Tick…Boom!—his way of expressing his feelings about his 20s coming to an end without any notable career success.  After Larson’s untimely death (just days before his 36th birthday) and after Rent had become a bona fide international sensation, Larson’s family asked Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn to adapt Tick, Tick…Boom! as a fully staged musical, one which would feature three performers, one as Jon and the other two playing various characters in Jon’s life, most significantly his gay best friend Michael and Jon’s girlfriend Susan.

It is this 90-minute “autobiomusical” that Orange and Los Angeles county Jonathan Larson fans can now savor in the first-rate production Theatre Out has mounted at Santa Ana’s Empire Theatre (former home of Rude Guerilla).

“The sound you are hearing is not a technical problem,” Jon (Ian Michael Stuart) tells us as he sits in front of his keyboard, the tick tick ticking of a clock echoing in the background. “It is not a musical cue.  It is not a joke. It is the sound of one man’s mounting anxiety.  I … am that man.” With his 30th birthday fast approaching, Jon can’t help comparing his still unsuccessful life with that of his childhood bff Michael (Kevin Cordova), a successful business executive with a fancy sports car and more brand name outfits than he could possibly count. Meanwhile, girlfriend Susan (Andrea Dennison-Laufer) is thinking about giving up her Manhattan job teaching ballet to “wealthy and untalented children” and moving out of the city.

Tick, Tick…Boom! follows Jon during the days leading up to his birthday as he prepares for the Superbia workshop, flirts and quarrels with Susan, learns that Michael has worries that far exceed his own—and eventually finds the strength to persevere.  (Thank goodness, or there would never have been a Rent.)  Larson’s signature sound rings forth loud and clear in numbers like “30/90,” “Sugar,” and “Louder Than Words,” and his hilarious parody of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday” is almost worth the price of admission.

Though no longer a one-man show, Tick, Tick…Boom! does rest greatly on the shoulders of its leading man, and in Stuart, Theatre Out couldn’t have found a more talented Jon. The soon-to-graduate UC Irvine musical theater major not only gives a dynamic, intense, believable performance, but possesses pipes powerful enough to fill the Empire’s very wide stage without amplification.  He’s also got that likeability factor which puts the audience right on Jon’s side from the first tick tick of the clock.

Cordova does very well too as Michael (and other characters), sings terrifically, and has convincing rapport with Stuart, though it’s hard to buy the two characters as being anywhere near the same age.  A vocally strong Dennison-Laufer completes the cast with pizzazz. Her Susan is sweet and sexy and her comic turn as Jon’s agent Rosa is a gem.

Director David C. Carnevale gets high marks for insuring that Tick, Tick…Boom! not end up just a bunch of Jonathan Larson songs strung together with dialog, but an authentic play with authentic people. Musical director/keyboardist Stephen Hulsey leads a fine four-piece band, fortunately not overly amplified, as the singers are unmiked. Choreographer Frankie Marrone has created some snappy dance steps for “Green Green Dress” and “No More.”  Carnevale’s black-box-&-abstract-paintings* set is just right and just enough for this intimate staging. The director/set designer also picked the character-specific costumes, but if you’ve got a song extolling a character’s sexy “Green Green Dress,” you’d better well put that character in a green green dress, and not in jeans and a vaguely greenish top.  Daphne Mir is responsible for the show’s excellent lighting design.

Sunday’s performance was standing room only, proof positive that Theatre Out has made a savvy choice of season opener in Tick, Tick…Boom!, and that adoring Larson fans are out there in droves, eager to see his “other” musical. They will not be disappointed.

*Original artwork by Beth Cheng and Anthony Fuentes

Theatre Out, The Empire Theatre, 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.

–Steven Stanley
January 23, 2010
Photos: Darcy Hogan

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