tick, tick … BOOM!

With its twelve years and 5,124 performances on Broadway, a major motion picture, countless recent Southern California productions large and small, and an ongoing off-Broadway revival, it seems hard to believe there was ever a time before Jonathan Larson’s Rent.

But there was.

Yes, Virginia, there was a time before Mark, Roger, Mimi, Angel, Collins, Joanne, Maureen, and Benny, 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.” 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. A decade or so later (after Larson’s sudden death from an aortic aneurysm 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 2001 one-act “autobiomusical” that DOMA Theatre Company now brings to Los Angeles audiences in an absolutely thrilling production, one which introduces Angelinos to a 23-year-old Broadway vet whose star turn as Jon is sure to be among the year’s most raved about.

“The sound you are hearing is not a technical problem,” Jon (John Arthur Greene) 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 (Tony Melson), a successful business executive with a fancy sports car and more brand name outfits than he could possibly count. Meanwhile, girlfriend Susan (Jennifer Colby Talton) 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.

With crackerjack director L. Flint Esquerra making imaginative use of the Met Theatre’s two-level stage, there’s not a dull moment in tick, tick … BOOM!’s intermissionless ninety minutes, particularly with as topnotch a cast as DOMA has assembled.

Greene arrives in Los Angeles fresh from having starred on Broadway as Riff in the Tony-winning revival of West Side Story, which tells you something about this young man’s talents. From the opening notes of “30/90” to the show closer “Louder Than Words,” Greene holds the audience in the palm of his hands, dynamic, charismatic, energetic, sexy, and one heck of a singer. Greene gives Jon humor, charm, vulnerability, and depth, and his eleventh hour “Why,” which takes Jon from self doubt to determination, is as powerfully performed a rendition of this showstopper as I can recall.

Melson has long been a StageSceneLA favorite, his roles in Rent and Naked Boys Singing having won him a pair of Scenie Awards. The handsome, talented triple threat gives Michael smarts and sass, and though Jon’s best friend gets no solos, Melson joins Greene and Talton ever so harmoniously in “Johnny Can’t Decide,” “Sunday,” “Real Life,” “See Her Smile,” and “Louder Than Words.”

Finally there is Talton, brand new to this reviewer but not to musical theater, an absolutely enchanting performer whose exquisite pipes earn her deserved cheers for “Come To Your Senses.” Talton looks and sounds sensational in “Green Green Dress,” has great chemistry with Greene, and does a hilarious cameo as Jon’s very Noo Yawk agent. I can’t wait to see more of her work.

The onstage band, led by music director-keyboardist Brian Michael, and featuring Mick Clinco (guitar), Bill von Ravensberg (bass) and Michael Partlow (drums) simply couldn’t be better, and sound designer Joseph Montiel insures that vocals and instruments are mixed to perfection. (For whatever reason, the “tinny” sound that proved problematic in last month’s Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris seems to have disappeared in tick, tick … BOOM!)

Anastasia Magoutas’s costumes are well chosen, with special snaps for Susan’s green green dress. Only Julie Simpson’s very barebones scenic design and Andy Wagner’s haphazard lighting detract from what otherwise is a Grade A production. I couldn’t help wishing that this tick, tick … BOOM! looked as good as it sounds.

Marco Gomez is executive producer, Juan Carlos Chavez controller, and Schoen Smith and Dolf Ramos producers. Lemuel H. Thornton III is assistant producer, Jason Henderson technical director, and Laura Frost stage manager.

Those expecting Rent II should be forewarned to adjust their expectations to the considerably more personal show that is tick, tick … BOOM! Still, for anyone wishing to hear more of the kind of songs Jonathan Larson might have gone on to write had he not been taken from us so young, or who wish to get to know the Rent composer up close and personal, tick, tick … BOOM! makes for a truly memorable hour and a half of musical theater at its most intimate and best.

The Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Avenue, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
October 9, 2011
Photos: Erica Meyer

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