Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Tick, Tick … BOOM! at Toronto’s Studio Theatre

Parris Greaves, Laura Mae Nason, and Ken Chamberland in Tick, Tick ... BOOM! (Photo by Vincent Perri)

First things first. The production of Tick, Tick … BOOM! currently playing at the Studio Theatre of the Toronto Centre for the Arts is excellent: fast-paced, funny, energetic, well-staged, well-performed and well-sung. It’s a terrific way to spend an evening.

In broad outline, the story of Tick, Tick … BOOM! is kind of old hat: Young artist suffers for his art, agonizes over his future and his talent – is it all worthwhile? – and then, despite all the obstacles, has a great success. What gives this small musical its special frisson, however, is that it’s pretty much autobiographical, and that the show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, is better known as the originator of Rent, the sensational, multi-award-winning rock musical (loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème) that ran on Broadway for more than a decade, toured all over the world, and spawned a pretty good movie musical.

Memorably, Larson died suddenly and unexpectedly on Jan. 25, 1996, the morning of Rent’s first off-Broadway preview. The rest is legend: Despite its grim beginning, Rent was a monster hit, eventually moved to Broadway’s renowned Nederlander Theater, and stayed there for well over a decade. Posthumously, Larson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama, three Tony Awards, three Drama Desk Awards and three Obies.

But before there was Rent, there was Superbia, a futuristic musical inspired in part by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was produced in several workshops in the early 1990s, but never mounted on a full scale. And just after Superbia, there was Tick, Tick … BOOM!, a one-man rock musical written and performed by Larson in 1991, in part to express his disappointment over the fate of Superbia. (The action of Tick Tick in fact takes place in the lead up to a workshop of Superbia.) After Larson’s death, playwright David Auburn restructured the “rock monologue” into a three-character play, which is where we stand today.

Photo by Vincent Perri
The three characters are Jon (Parris Greaves), an aspiring composer and lyricist, who at the age of nearly 30 still makes ends meet by waiting tables at a diner; his childhood buddy Michael (Ken Chamberland), who gave up on an acting career and became a successful, and wealthy, Madison Avenue advertising executive, and thinks Jonathan should do the same; and Susan (Laura Mae Nason), Jon’s girlfriend, a dancer who is beginning to think about settling down, preferably well out of SoHo, in fact out of New York altogether.

There is dialogue, and a lot of it is witty and biting, but the story is really moved forward in 14 songs, including "Johnny Can’t Decide", in which Michael and Susan discuss what Jon should do with his life, and the delicious "Sunday", a takeoff on Stephen Sondheim’s song of the same title, but converted from a statement on art into a waiter's complaint about serving brunch. Sondheim – who in real life was one of Larson’s mentors – is invoked throughout the play, as a composer “so legendary his name may not be uttered aloud.” (Jon’s compromise, “St … S …,” is an ongoing joke.)

Other lively scenes include Jon’s short-lived stint, a sort of audition, at Michael’s ad agency. The business at hand is a brainstorming session in which the agency’s creative people are seeking a name for a new cooking-fat substitute; Jon is dismissed when, fed up with the process, he suggests a laugh-out-loud word, a punch line (punch word?) that I won’t give away. Nason and Chamberland are hilarious as the other ad-agency characters, and in fact play a host of minor characters all through the show.

For the song "Sugar", Jon and Karessa (Nason, of course), an actress from the Superbia cast, run into each other in a convenience store, where they have both gone to buy Twinkies. It’s a bonding moment. Later, during the Superbia workshop, she delivers the showstopping number "Come to Your Senses". The bonding continues, and Susan, seeing the two together, decides it’s definitely time for her to move on. These scenes, with the tough doubling, are Nason’s time to shine.

Greaves stands out, an especially good singer with a lot of stage presence, and Chamberland is a good comic and dramatic foil for him, though his singing voice sometimes sounds a little unsteady. Nason has a fine voice and some big-time comic chops, but seems oddly without chemistry in her Jon-and-Susan scenes.

But that’s a niggle. I had fun at this show, and also got a look at a piece of musical theatre history. I’m glad I saw it, and I think anyone would be.

– Jack Kirchhoff is an arts writer and editor in Toronto.

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