Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Tick, Tick...Boom!

Ken Chamberland, Parris Greaves (photo: Vincent Perri)

Tick, Tick... Boom! goes off... eventually.
Jonathan Larson’s ‘other’ musical delivers on modest ambitions, even if it takes its time getting started.
by Christian Baines

There are few real-life musical theatre stories more tragic than Jonathan Larson’s. At least... stories about successful composers. His breakout hit Rent spoke to a generation of theatregoers – and in later years, let’s face it, hipsters. Though it proved Broadway musicals could both be critical darlings and box office gold, even in the 90’s, Larson would not live to enjoy its success, tragically passing away the night before Rent’s first Off-Broadway performance.

The show’s success however did open a crack in the window of opportunity for Larson’s other, lesser known musical, Tick, Tick... Boom!, which in a masterstroke of inventiveness follows a young musical theatre composer named Jon (Parris Greaves), who is turning 30 and still not self-sustaining in his artistic career.

Write what you know, they say.

Let’s forget Rent for a moment. In scale and tone, Tick, Tick... Boom! is much closer to intimate chamber musicals such as The Last 5 Years, Ordinary Days and [title of show], which have been doing the rounds with alarming regularity on the virtue that they’re for the most-part fairly inoffensive, play well to the musical theatre ‘in’ crowd and can be produced on a shoestring budget. Many of these shows work splendidly, others... not so much.

Tick, Tick... Boom! kind of has a foot in each camp, and by ‘foot’ I mean about half of its running time. It doesn’t really find a voice to call its own until about the halfway point, skittering around the cringe-inducing Green Green Dress and fun, but somewhat silly numbers like Johnny Can’t Decide and Sunday in the meantime. But when it does hit its stride, right around the time Jon’s labour-of-love musical goes to workshop, we get flashes of energy and willingness to take risks that not only foreshadow Rent, but demonstrate just what the musical theatre world may have lost when Larson passed.

Yet even these strengths reveal a composer still getting a handle on the idea of an integrated narrative. For instance, the show’s most powerful emotional punch comes when Karessa, an otherwise fairly forgettable cast member in Jon’s show (Karessa, that is, not Laura Mae Naeson, who’s a powerhouse in this role and others) delivers Come To Your Senses – sure enough, her number in Jon’s show. The book’s most powerful moment comes moments later during a confrontation between Jon and long-time best friend Michael (Ken Chamberland). In fact, there’s enough surprising depth to the latter half of the book that it mostly smoothes over the awkwardness of the opening. It can sometimes feel like a stuttering patchwork of highlights, but they are highlights all the same. On a darker note, some aspects of the plot provide an eerie foreshadowing of real life events. After all, this is a musical about realizing you’re getting older and fretting not having done anything worthwhile with your youth.

Greaves does a fine job of navigating Jon through the fairly familiar narrative without resorting to irritating, neurotic New York artist stereotypes. Yes, there are moments in which the book is doing him no favours – Larson clearly loved to break the fourth wall with narration and a couple of numbers meant to show Jon as ‘a regular guy’ come across as a touch grotesque. Still, Greaves is likeable and engaging throughout. Likewise Chamberland, who along with Nason covers several roles with varying degrees of camp, sincerity and flash. He does unfortunately come across a bit ‘Ken doll’ at times, but what comes through when he does show a bit of vulnerability is delightful. Nason meanwhile owns the stage whenever she sings (and is it just me, or is Susan really just an extension of Company’s Kathy?).

Tick, Tick... Boom! is conspicuously the debut musical of a composer, book-writer and lyricist who should, and I believe would have gone on to give us many more great musicals. As it stands, this is a spirited, well-cast production of a modest show that’s testament to that potential. Not so much essential viewing as a charming and fun curiosity well worth the price of admission.

Tick, Tick... Boom! runs at Studio Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts until October 6.

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