Opening nights have an energy unlike any other night of a run. Full of expectation, anticipation, celebration – and last night’s opening of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM! at the Toronto Centre for the Arts was especially so. Co-produced by Angelwalk Theatre and Newface Entertainment, and directed by Tim French with music direction by Anthony Bastianon, this opening was also the first night of Angelwalk’s 5th anniversary season.
The first of only two musicals Larson wrote before his sudden death the night before the first Off-Broadway performance of his other show – the rock musical hit RENT – tick, tick… BOOM! is an autobiographical piece, originally performed by Larson in 1990 as a solo show. Playwright David Auburn revised the show to a three-hander after Larson’s death in 1996; vocal arrangements and orchestrations were penned by Stephen Oremus. In tick, tick… BOOM!, we see the evolution of Larson the man and the artist, struggling to write a true rock musical during a time when the only musicals welcomed on Broadway were of the traditional, older music style, or soft pop at best – and we get a hint of the even bigger hit yet to come.
Jon (Parris Greaves) is our host and the main character for this journey. Part narrator and part struggling music theatre writer/composer, he’s also grappling with Father Time; the tick, tick of his own clock getting louder as he draws closer to the public workshop of his musical Superbia and his 30th birthday. Frustrated and ashamed that he has nothing to show for his life’s work – or his life, period – and feeling like time is running out for him, he tells us about his plight in the opening song “30/90”. Boom! His roommate Michael (Ken Chamberland), a former actor turned market researcher on Madison Avenue, is moving up in the world. He’s got a new BMW and he’s heading to a new apartment uptown, away from their Soho slumlord digs and happy to be where he is. He’s also happy to offer Jon a spot at his firm. Jon, not so much. Rounding out Jon’s chosen family is his girlfriend Susan (Laura Mae Nason), a dancer and dance teacher who has the future on her mind. A future that includes Jon, but not NYC.
Born in the early 60s, Jon is painfully aware that – as a junior baby boomer – he’s grown up in a darker and more cynical time than the older folks of his generation. Choices weigh heavily as he tries to reconcile his need for self-expression and artistic creation against financial stability and security (“Johnny Can’t Decide”). And he’s sick of waiting tables just to scrape by (“Sunday”). Attempts at creativity in corporate America feel anything but – and people seem all too willing to do anything for a buck. Things come to a head with Susan – aptly expressed in their duet “Therapy” – and when Michael comes to him with some dire news, Jon realizes that he must make some active choices, not just coast along with the status quo or wait for things to happen (“Why”).
The show features some incredible harmonies – duets and trios – and the cast blends their voices to make those chords resonate beautifully. Powerful ballads “Real Life,” “Come To Your Senses” (a stand-out performance from Nason in the musical workshop within the musical) and, especially, the finale “Louder Than Words” (which includes the lyrics: “Cages or wings? Which do you prefer?”) make this an inspirational, truthful and heartfelt piece of musical theatre. The cast brings the right balance of humour and poignancy to their performances: Greaves as the artist struggling for his work, his soul and connection with his loved ones; Chamberland as his best friend, supportive but choosing another path to make a life of his own, both men wondering if they can still connect now that they’re living such different lives; and Nason as Jon’s loving and loyal girlfriend, hoping that her dreams will match that her lover – and both having to decide whether it’s possible. And Chamberland and Nason are more than up to the challenge of juggling multiple roles, including restaurant co-workers and patrons, Jon’s parents, his agent (both get a crack at her, with hilarious results!) and a lovely actress in Jon’s workshop.
The set (designed by Alanna McConnell) is made up of multi-level playing spaces, including scaffolding and steel stairs, and back-lit panels featuring lyrics from the show’s songs – minimalist and very effective at evoking the sleek, hard urban environment of New York City, as well as housing the live band on either side of the stage under the scaffolding. It puts us in that place, and allows the characters and music to dominate the space. Michelle Tracey’s costume designs set us firmly in 1990 – and Susan’s vintage design dress is well-deserving of “Green Green Dress,” the appreciative song it inspires in the show.
Performed with passion and drive – and three excellent sets of pipes – this small cast expresses some big feelings and ideas; and the personal is made universal by the common desire for connection, meaning and finding a place in the world. Personal expression, and overcoming fear and doubt in order to be true to oneself in the face of conformity and materialism – in a time when a new, invisible enemy has emerged with AIDS – all figure prominently in tick, tick… BOOM! There are shades of RENT here, the evolution of this music and these themes grow into a larger piece yet to come.
Go see tick, tick… BOOM! – running at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until October 6.