Wednesday, October 16, 2013

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

Before Rent: Larson’s autobio Tick, Tick... BOOM!
A sharp cast and quartet sometimes strains, but otherwise hits the mark
by Sarah Deshaies
That ever-lasting question: to be a poor starving artist with a small shot at fame and riches, or to switch into a more lucrative, secure (and maybe heartless) profession.
Jonathan Larson, known best for rock opera Rent, was deliberating this very question as a young, struggling composer living in Manhattan in the ‘90s. Tick, Tick… BOOM! happened along before Larson became known for composing and writing Rent, the modern incarnation of La Bohème, as lived by boho artists scraping by in Alphabet City. Before Rent won a Pulitzer, a Tony and grossed hundreds of millions at the box office.

And as Larson tragically died of aortic dissection the night before Rent’s Off Broadway premiere in 1996, Tick, Tick… BOOM! is a lasting self-portrait of a struggling artist, a snapshot of his life when success was only a tantalizing glimmer in the future. Before the riches and fame did not quite arrive. For Rent fans, it’s a must-see peek into Larson’s psyche.

I’ve been promising for so long, I think I might have broken the promise

The Manhattanite composed Tick, Tick...BOOM as an autobiographical rock monologue, fueled by disappointment surrounding his creation Superbia, a futuristic rock musical based on Orwell’s 1984. He performed Tick, Tick...BOOM solo in the early ‘90s, and after his death it was remodeled as a three-person, two-act show backed by a rock band and piano.

Jon (Brendan Macdonald) is an aspiring composer glumly facing his 30th birthday. Though he is talented, his work has never delivered the one-two punch of success he has been seeking. “I’ve been promising for so long, I think I might have broken the promise,” he laments. He writes when he can and staffs a diner on weekends. 

Girlfriend Susan (Teodora Mechetiuc) teaches dance to 'wealthy and untalented children', but she’s keen to pack up and move her work (and Jon) somewhere north, preferably near a beach. (A place with a dishwasher!) On the other hand, there’s Mike, Jon’s BFF and soon-to-be-ex roommate. Mike (Nathaniel Hanula-James) has thrown in the towel on his acting career; he seems pleased that his job in market research has yielded him a BMW, three Gucci belts and an upscale home. Jon doesn’t want to move away with Susan and give up on New York, but he doesn’t want to take Mike’s job offer to work at his firm. But for how much longer can he slog it out in the trenches of musical theatre?

McGill’s Tuesday Night Café (TNC) cast and crew take on the big challenge of staging this piece in a modest black box space. Director Jon Corkal’s show feels poised, intimate and fun, though our performers’ voices sometimes strain over the music. The quartet, while overpowering at times, does not however miss a beat in its execution.
Mechetiuc and Hanula-James enliven the assorted characters they’re enlisted to play, from aging parents to crude grocery store owners to chain-smoking agents. Macdonald does fit the image of the struggling writer, but his voice is stretched thin; while Jon questions himself endlessly, a kick of confidence would boost Macdonald’s performance. A nice plum surprise is that Larson’s script feels as real and timely today as it did in the ‘90s: Susan believes a lack of big economic or political crises have left her generation without a ‘real problem’ (while we’ve had our economic downturns and wars, these have arguably not had the widescale impact of the Great Depression or both World Wars); Jon complains of a pre-mid-life crisis. Today, look no further than websites like Thought Catalog or BuzzFeed, which constantly summarize the difficulties of being a lost twenty-something. Even Susan’s pirated HBO brings to mind torrent episodes of Breaking Bad.
Considering the show is put together by university students and the talented TNC crew, you get the feeling a lot of them are contemplating the same things Larson was: do I pursue my passion, no matter the circumstances, or do I find something that will make me comfortable?
And that would have been something for Jonathan Larson to see, were he alive today.
Tuesday Night Café’s Tick, Tick… BOOM! runs Oct 16-19 and 23-26 at Morrice Hall, 3485 McTavish. Tickets are $6 for students, $10 for adults. Reservations:

Read also an interview with director Jon Corkal.

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