It's not time that haunts the main character in Theater LaB's life-affirming production of Jonathan Larson's tick, tick...BOOM! -- it's the all-too-real, aching absence of its creator. Having struggled for years to become the next voice of Broadway, the ultra-gifted Larson, in 1996 just 35 and on the cusp of realizing his dream, dropped dead from an exploding heart on the eve of the premiere of his latest work, Rent. Posthumously, he would win the Pulitzer Prize, Drama Desk award and multiple Tony awards for this phenomenally successful and defining work.
But before Rent and after a failed workshop of his science-fiction musical Superbia, Larson wrote the autobiographical chamber musical30/90, a one-man "rock monologue" that documented his turning that dreadful age in 1990 while -- the frustrating scourge of all youthful ambition -- having no success to speak of. In 1993, retitled tick, tick...BOOM, his solo show opened (and quickly closed) off-Broadway. Larson acted and sang all the characters, accompanied himself on piano and led the small rock band orchestra. He was still tinkering with it when he put it aside for a new project that would become Rent. Once that musical became a cultural landmark, audiences clamored for more, so this earlier, forgotten work was excavated in tribute to Larson's short, tragic career. Arranged and edited by playwright David Auburn (a Pulitzer, Drama Desk and Tony winner for Proof), the five extant versions of Boom morphed into the three-person musical now on display. But while there's no denying the prodigious words-and-music talent Larson displays so felicitously, this bio play is still very much a work-in-progress.
Larson, in chilling premonition of his time running out, wants to say so much about so many issues dear to his heart that the show winds up skimming over everything. It's a social rebel's fundamental checklist: turning 30, career frustration, patronizing parents, the shallowness of contemporary youth culture, his relationship with girlfriend Susan (Blythe Herring), selling out to corporate America as did best friend Mike (Aaron White), the poor state of the nation, the equally poor state of the Broadway musical... But Larson lobs his thematic pebbles with such musical style that the blocky structure doesn't hurt the show. Through his absolute command over his medium, the songs arc and glide with a graceful power that makes the overbaked plot situations seem almost fresh.
Whether about sex ("Green Green Dress"), commitment ("Johnny Can't Decide"), the tedium of work ("Sunday," a parody knockoff of Stephen Sondheim) or a rousing old-fashioned "up number" on the effects of sugar ("Sugar"), the songs have rhythmic novelty and quirky, sly lyrics that set them apart and him above his contemporaries. With this work, Larson waits in the wings, ready for his Broadway bow.
Director and choreographer Linda Phenix supplies zip and dash to the material, while the young cast adds spice. Playing Jonathan, Josh Wright is as intense and rumpled as Larson was reputed to have been. With his messy "bed head," Wright even resembles him, and his powerful, rangy voice caresses Larson's eclectic mix of songs. As a character, Jonathan's not easy to love -- he's whiny, way too on edge, egocentric and demanding -- but what he creates is so unique and so good, the stage sparks with life. With ultimate Broadway irony, the real Jonathan Larson left us wanting more.
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