Tick, Tick...BOOM! Fizzles
Compared to Rent, the late Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer prize-winning masterpiece, Tick,Tick...BOOM! is an afterthought. Its intended audience consists mostly of Rentophiles and general musical theater enthusiasts. If this were pop music, it would be considered a collectors’ item — one of those early, vinyl-only b-sides that people hoard, not necessarily because they are good, but because they are rare.
Originally, Tick, Tick... BOOM! was an autobiographical one-man show that Larson began performing in 1990. Then, in the wake of both Larson’s untimely death of an aortic aneurysm and the wild success of Rent, playwright David Auburn (also a Pulitzer Prize winner) reworked Tick, Tick...BOOM! into a sort of tribute piece to Larson’s life and legacy.
It is not a good show, but it does represent an earlier, formative period in the work of a man who eventually achieved greatness, and, in that sense, it’s intriguing. In another sense, however, it’s maddening. They might as well have just spilled it, calling the show, “Hey, this is the guy who did Rent...RENT!!!” At least it would have been honest.
Still, the Oberlin Musical Theatre Association’s production of Tick, Tick...BOOM! which ran last weekend in the Little Theater and was directed by junior Alan Kline, did a fairly decent job of overcoming the show’s inherent shortcomings.
The show is autobiographical almost to the point of being nonsensical. Sure, there is a plot line about following a week in John’s life leading up to the workshop of his musical, Superbia — perhaps his final chance to make it big before giving up and selling out like his best friend, Mike.
There are even a few sub-plots: Mike moving out of the pair’s death trap, a boho loft, John’s girlfriend, Susan, wanting the two of them to leave New York altogether and move up to Cape Cod, and AIDS (after all, this is Jonathan Larson). Yet the show is hopelessly jumbled. Unlike Rent — where songs like “Light My Candle” work to advance the action and numbers like “Seasons of Love” serve more as thematic declarations — the songs in Tick, Tick...BOOM! have nothing to do with the legacy of Jonathan Larson. There’s a song about Twinkies, for Lord’s sake!
Luckily, there were no weak links in the cast — and with a cast as small as four, a weak link would be deadly. First-year Christopher Dunn-Rankin played John, the show’s narrator/protagonist and Jonathan Larson’s thinly (if at all) veiled alter ego, spiritedly assuming the unenviable task of having to carry the show on his back.
Senior Lincoln Smith and sophomore Lindsay Garces both had fine performances as Mike and Susan. Junior Melissa Bayern, who played Karessa, an actress in Superbia, outright stole the show. With a voice that could wipe the floor with Simon Cowell, Bayern was criminally restricted to only a single solo number, the brain-smashing power ballad, “Come to Your Senses.” It was the unmistakable high point of the entire night. Unshackling herself from the decidedly shoddy material, Bayern gave a stunning vocal performance that left the audience breathless.
The rest of the cast delivered quality performances but were rarely able to fully shake themselves of the show’s glaring weaknesses, in terms of both script and song. It should be noted that Smith made use of quality comedic timing to spice up otherwise unfulfilling numbers like “Sunday.” (Still, he wasn’t, oh, naked enough for my tastes...)
Kline did an admirable job of smoothing out the show’s erratic pacing, highlighting the best parts and exercising damage control around the worst.
The band, under the supervision of musical director Dan Rodriguez, was good but a bit loud at times. Rodriguez turned in a pitch perfect cameo as Stephen Sondheim. Actually, whenever the band was called upon to fill in crowd scenes, they all showed considerable acting chops.
In the end, the most frustrating parts of this show were those that worked
best. Songs like “Therapy,” or the show’s emotional climax,
“Why,” demonstrate the unrealized possibilities of Larson’s
talent. (I will maintain that “Why” is the best summation out there
of how kids can fall in love with musical theatre and remain in love with it
for the rest of their lives.) They’re infuriating because they remind the
audience of just how good Jonathan Larson can be, and just how bad the rest of
Tick, Tick...BOOM! really is.