'tick, tick...BOOM!' at NCTC - Larsen musical's a pocketful of sunshine

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday May 21, 2024
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Marcus J. Paige, Chris Morell and Catalina Kumiski in 'tick, tick...Boom'<br> (photo: Lois Tema)
Marcus J. Paige, Chris Morell and Catalina Kumiski in 'tick, tick...Boom'
(photo: Lois Tema)

"tick, tick...Boom!," is more tickle than gloom.

Now charming audiences in an already-extended production at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, this posthumous cobbling of writer-composer Jonathan Larson pre-"Rent" compositions shines a welcome light on the sly humor and jukebox wit of its creator. ("Proof" playwright David Auburn has skillfully organized the raw material).

When reminiscing over "Rent," the Pulitzer-winning 1996 musical about a cadre of young grungesters in Alphabet City who wrestle with artistic aspiration, sexual orientation, drug addiction and AIDS, you're unlikely to focus on its comic elements.

That show tugs at your heart like a feral puppy; its baked-in earnestness compounded by Larson's shocking death, at age 35, on the night before the show opened Off-Broadway.

But, "tick, tick...Boom!"—which might never have been produced without the success of "Rent"— provides a less morbid opportunity to appreciate Larson's musical skills.

Chris Morell and Marcus J. Paige in 'tick, tick...Boom' (photo: Lois Tema)  

The show deftly skates a fine line between biographical musical and revue (A cast of three is outnumbered by a band of five). Its narrative scaffolding centers on composer Jon (a Larsen stand-in played by lanky, appropriately adenoidal Chris Morrell), his best friend Michael (Marcus J. Paige), and his girlfriend Susan (Catalina Kumiski).

Paige and Kumiski, both superb singers, also slip into a number of brief additional roles, most amusingly Jon's Noo Yawk Jewish agent, Rosa Stevens, played by each of them in different scenes. (The band also takes on supernumerary duties).

Fun Fact: The role of "Jon" was originated off-Broadway in 2001 by Raul Esparza, currently playing the title role in "Galileo" at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Versatile genre-hopping
A loose storyline covers the weeks leading up to Jon's 30th birthday and the workshop debut of his musical, "Superbia" (An actual early work by Larson, one number from which is interpolated here), during which he reflects on his artistic and relationship struggles. But the piece is best appreciated as a showcase of songs, most of which are delightfully clever.

"Sunday," is a gleeful pastiche of Steven Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George," chronicling Jon's day job serving brunch in a diner ("For a cool orange juice or a bagel/On soft cylindrical stools). Larson brings not only Seurat's pointillist picnic to mind, but also Wayne Thiebaud's painted baked goods.

Sondheim, whose combination of sophistication and success is a holy grail for Jon, surfaces at other points in the show, too.

Chris Morell and Catalina Kumiski in 'tick, tick...Boom' (photo: Lois Tema)  

"Sugar," displays Larson's nuanced understanding of historic pop idioms, starting off as an on-the-nose Archies spoof but blossoming into a more stately Beatlesque mode.

"Johnny Can't Decide," adorns expositional showtune balladry with a paisley '60s swirl, gently humorous in its clever musical meld more than its lyrics.

Rockers "30/90" and "No More" (a Green Day-meets-Fairy Princess showstopper for Paige) provide glances of Larson's "Rent" horizon. But their style is enriched in the context of this show's utterly unhomogenized musical mix.

Larson's magpie playfulness glimmers when he folds a few bars of "The Jeffersons" theme song into "No More" or drops a reference to Captain Kangaroo.

On the flip side, while he overdoes the use of lists-as-lyrics in "tick, tick...Boom!", Larson is clearly toying with an idea that he later took to its apotheosis in "Rent"'s "La Vie Boheme" and "Seasons of Love."

Among the show's baker's dozen songs, there are only a couple of duds. "Green Dress," with its throwaway moon-June rhymes, and "Real Life," which has a miasmic sprawl that anticipates "Rent"'s most bathetic, self-absorbed elements.

Lively and lasting
Director/choreographer Cindy Goldfield brings a deceptively casual elegance to her blocking, reconfiguring her talented trio of actors throughout 90 intermission-less minutes, making what could be an awkwardly intimate, bare-bones show feel bigger than life and bursting with energy.

Seasoned theatergoers (aka old folks like me) may scoff a bit at Jon's crisis: a dire fear of being over-the-hill at 30. But the story is not the point here. Youthful ambition, energy and talent, both Larson's and the cast's, carry the day.

"Rent" may have been the big signature musical of its moment, but that moment has passed. Pocket-sized "tick, tick...Boom!" shares a sweet stopped-clock timelessness with "The Fantasticks."

'tick, tick...Boom,' through June 16. $25-$65. New Conservatory Theatre Center. 25 Van Ness Ave. (415) 861-8972. www.nctcsf.org

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