tick, tick… BOOM! continues at the Park Theatre, London until 27 May.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
That Jonathan Larson created the multi award-winning Broadway musical Rent would be enough to secure his place in musical theatre history. The tragedy of his death, on the last day of rehearsals for the show that would make his name, has elevated him to near-mythic proportions.
tick, tick… BOOM! is regarded as his only other musical, although the form in which it exists now was created five years after his death. In life, Larson wrote and performed in a one-man ‘rock monologue’ entitled Boho Days, which in 2001 was expanded by playwright David Auburn into the three-person chamber piece we know today.
Both versions of the piece concentrate on a largely autobiographical story, with struggling musical composer Jon (Chris Jenkins) using the ticking timebomb of his forthcoming 30th birthday to consider whether he wants to continue his Broadway dream, or succumb to the pressure from roommate Michael and girlfriend Susan to switch to a more stable, secure career.
To a certain extent, the reason why tick, tick… BOOM! has gained such affection in musical theatre circles is that performers and other creatives can see their own profession portrayed on stage, the same way Hollywood reveres films about Hollywood. But the main reason is that, as a small scale musical, it’s one of the better ones, and really hard to mess up.
Park Theatre’s show initially hints that it might be trying to go for that harder option; despite all three actors being mic’d up in the Park’s 90-seat studio, lines get lost whenever an actor has their back to one of the three sides of audience seats, and the show’s early dialogue-heavy moments struggle to gain momentum.
But such moments fade quickly. Under the eye of director Bronagh Lagan, Jenkins leads a trio that soon bursts into life.
A couple of the early numbers, especially the rockabilly stylings of ‘Green Green Dress’, struggle to find their feet, but by the time we reach the Sondheim pastiche ‘Sunday’, describing the brunching habits of diner customers in the style of Sunday in the Park With George, the show begins to fly, and does not stop.
Jenkins and Jordan Shaw’s Michael, childhood friends who have become roommates in New York’s SoHo district, exude fraternal love for one another that shines through Philip Michael Thomas’space-defying choreography in ‘No More’.
That their relationship is the strongest in the musical is down to their chemistry, and Shaw’s effortless portrayal of a gay man struggling to disclose his HIV status to his best friend. His lead vocal on ‘Real Life’ becomes one of the show’s musical highlights.
As Jon’s girlfriend Susan, Gillian Saker is handed a weaker character, one who primarily exists to nag and fight with the protagonist more than to love him.
Saker fares far better with her other principal role, the actress Karessa who is in Jon’s workshopped rock musical. Her rendition of the sublime ‘Come to Your Senses’, enhanced by Ben M Rogers’ lighting designs, is not the best rendition I’ve heard of that number (that credit goes to Leanne Jones in the Union Theatre’s 2010 production) but still cannot fail to bring a tear to the eye.
Jenkins himself brings a warmth to the neurotic Jon, even as the character becomes so caught up in his own thoughts that he ignores what is going on in his friends’ lives.
By the time he sits down at the piano to perform ‘Why’, he has completely sold us on the idea that a 29-year-old composer considering his life options before his birthday is making the most important decision – when, as anyone for whom a 30th birthday is but a distant memory will tell you, the supposed milestone is anything but.
But that too, is the magic of this production – and again has gained extra layers of recognition due to Larson’s untimely passing.
On stage, Jon is tantalisingly close to breaking into stardom, and by the end has turned the tick, tick, ticking of his impending birthday into the countdown towards exploding onto the Broadway stage.
We leave the character looking towards a bright future, which is exactly the same state in which Larson left us.
By the end, Jon says that: “the tick tick booms are quieter now” – but in his reality and ours, they are louder than ever.
This production of tick, tick… BOOM! demonstrates why they should not be drowned out, but harnessed to give a tempo to a life of passionate, impassioned theatre.