tick, tick… BOOM!

USC’s Musical Theatre Repertory concludes its eight annual season with Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM!, providing Larson lovers with a terrifically entertaining, imaginatively re-envisioned staging of Larson’s posthumous, autobiographical, pre-Rent musical gem, one which, like all MTR productions, is directed, choreographed, designed, and performed entirely by students.


tick, tick… BOOM! gives audiences a unique peek into Jonathan Larson’s life before Rent, the musical he sadly did not live to see become one of Broadway’s biggest smashes ever.

Though it may seem hard to believe that there was a time before Jonathan Larson’s Rent, there was indeed 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 long before 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.

Director Brandon Baer has reconceived tick, tick … BOOM! as a seven-performer musical, a concept that not only spreads the wealth among its USC student triple-threats but makes seeing tick, tick … BOOM! a brand new experience for those like this reviewer who’ve been there, done that before.

“The sound you are hearing is not a technical problem,” Jon (Myles Nuzzi) 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 (Segun Oluwadele), a successful business executive with a fancy sports car and more brand-name outfits than he could possibly count. Meanwhile, girlfriend Susan (Hajin Cho) is thinking about giving up her Manhattan job teaching ballet to “wealthy and untalented children” and moving out of the city.

525429_576042532420520_341217951_n2 The cast, creative team, and crew are joined by Jonathan Larson’s sister Julie, center back row

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.

Since “Jonathan Larson” is onstage throughout Tick, Tick…Boom!’s intermissionless ninety minutes, no production can succeed without a Jon capable of grabbing an audience from his first note and keeping them in the palm of his hand until the final fade-out. Fortunately, Musical Theatre Repertory has found that special Jon in USC freshman Myles Nuzzi, and if it takes a while to accept this fresh-faced teen from Maine as a (nearly) thirty-year old, the richness and vibrancy of Nuzzi’s performance, both vocally and as an actor digging deep, makes him a spot-on choice to bring Jon Larson to life. From the opening notes of “30/90” to the show closer “Louder Than Words” (and a powerhouse eleventh-hour “Why” in between), Nuzzi treats audiences to a performance promising great things ahead.

After vocalizing Little Shop’s Audrey II from offstage, Oluwadele makes a noteworthy MTR onstage debut in his sensitive portrayal of Jon’s best friend since summer camp. Joining Nuzzi, Cho, and occasionally other ensemble members in “Johnny Can’t Decide,” “Sunday,” “Real Life,” “See Her Smile,” and “Louder Than Words,” Oluwadele’s velvety vocals are some of Tick, Tick…Boom!’s best. As for Cho, the talented Trojan makes for a most appealing Susan, and never more so than when duetting a sexy, flirtatious “Green Green Dress” with Nuzzi.

A number of supporting characters in Jonathan Larson’s life make cameo appearances in tick, tick… BOOM!, roles customarily assigned to the actors playing Michael and Susan. Director Baer gives these parts to four additional performers, not only making this tick, tick… BOOM! a bigger show, but allowing for richer harmonies, providing a greater sense of New York hustle and bustle, and giving choreographer Charlotte Wen a chance to strut her stuff by turning “Sugar” into a jazzy full-cast production number. “Sunday” works particularly well too with a larger cast of characters for Jon to “paint” à la Sunday In The Park’s George, and so does Jon’s meeting with the ad execs at Michael’s place of work.

Claire Adams is hilariously “like butta” as Jonathan’s agent Rosa (in addition to other cameo bits), Kimberlee Holland makes for an amusingly maternal Mrs. Larson (and others), and Kevin Paley has one scene-stealing moment after another in a series of deliciously played cameos including Jon’s nerdy dad and a snooty maitre d’ from somewhere waaaaay overseas.

Most significantly in Baer’s re-imagining of tick, tick… BOOM!, the plum role of Superbia workshop leading lady Karessa becomes her own part rather than being played by “Susan” in a dual role, thereby allowing glamorous Claire Blackwelder to show off her power pipes in “Come To Your Senses,” the show’s most gorgeous ballad, in addition to enriching the production by letting us see both women in Jon’s life.

Wunderkind musical director Anthony Lucca conducts and plays keyboards in tick, tick… BOOM!’s sensational band (Lucca, Ryan McDiarmid, Ethan Sherman, and Santino Tafarella), whose onstage presence makes them part of Jon’s story as well.

Victoria Tam gets top marks for an ingenious scenic design which carries a keyboard motif throughout. Megan Guthrie-Wedemeyer gets major snaps for her many character-apt costumes. Lighting designer-technical director Alex Underwood, prop designer Summer Grubaugh, and sound designer-mixer Danielle Kisner all offer major contributions to a thoroughly professional looking/sounding production regardless of the age of its creative team.

Alice Pollitt is stage manager, Kelly Merritt assistant stage manager, Dreem Qin assistant scenic designer, Underwood spotlight operator, and Henry Boyd crew. tick, tick… BOOM! is produced by Arielle Fishman and Victoria Pearlman.

As I post this review on Opening Night, audiences have only four more performances in a mere two days to catch tick, tick… BOOM! before the woulda-coulda-shouldas set in. If you’ve got ninety spare minutes in the next forty-eight hours, head on over to the USC-adjacent Village Gate Theatre. The young talents of Musical Theatre Repertory do Jonathan Larson’s memory proud.

Village Gate Theatre At USC, 3223 S. Hoover St., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
May 1, 2013

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