Theater Review: TICK, TICK … BOOM! (Cygnet Theatre)

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by Milo Shapiro on July 8, 2024

in Theater-San Diego


One of the great heartbreaks of theater history is that Jonathan Larson, the author and composer of the rock opera Rent, his modern telling of Puccini’s La Bohème, died suddenly at 35 of an aortic aneurysm on Jan. 25, 1996, 10 days before his 36th birthday and the day before the musical’s first preview performance Off-Off-Broadway. Larson never got to see what a huge hit it would be. Thankfully, Rent, while it may be his big triumph, wasn’t his only legacy.

Emma Nossal, AJ Rafael, Leo Ebanks

Larson wrote and staged Tick, Tick…Boom! using himself as the sole performer/narrator. The show received some acclaim in various productions between 1991 and 1993. Attention from those performances built his credibility, creating connections that led to making the mega-hit Rent possible. After his death, Victoria Leacock – producer of the original version of TTB – asked Pulitzer prize-winning author David Auburn to rework the show from a one-man production into having three actors, and it is this version that opened at Cygnet Theatre on Saturday: AJ Rafael plays Jon, Leo Ebanks plays his roommate Michael (and all other male roles), and Emma Nossal plays his girlfriend Susan (and all other female roles).

The book is semi-autobiographical, according to Larson’s father, which is hardly a surprise since the main character is named Jon and he’s a struggling musical playwright. Jon is trying to get attention for his musical named Superbia. We meet him living in New York City in 1990 during his final week of being age 29, dreading his 30th birthday because he feels the number implies about where he “should” have gotten by now (i.e.: not waiting tables as he awaits his big break).

Leo Ebanks, AJ Rafael

Michael keeps trying to get Jon to downgrade his passion into more of a hobby and come work at his advertising firm, where he can become a financial success instead of barely making ends meet. Susan, meanwhile, doesn’t want to squelch his dreams but tries to entice him to work on them from someplace nicer than SoHo, like New England. Most of the story, singing, humor, and angst is about Jon’s struggle in recognizing that both of them are right in some ways — and so is he, in staying the course. But choices, in life, must be made and lived with.

Even if you didn’t know a thing about Larson, you might find yourself thinking, “Something about this show reminds me of Rent.” Although Jon does hold a job, his intense dedication to musical theater is reminiscent of Rent’s character, Mark, the wannabe filmmaker. Musically, there are strong similarities, as well, with “No More” sounding quite a bit like Rent’s title song. Likewise, “Green Green Dress” (Jon singing to the pretty Susan as she parades around in said garment) sounds almost like the basis for Rent’s lovely “Light My Candle.”

Emma Nossal, AJ Rafael

Katie Banville’s pacing as director and choreographer is easy and comfortable, especially in controlling so well the many roles Mr. Ebanks and Ms. Nossal cover. With Jon’s talking directly to the audience quite a bit, it’s not surprising that this songwriter has keyboard in front of him and sings a lot of his songs straight out as he’s playing. The show calls for light choreography, a shame given Ms. Banville’s tour de force organization of dance in Cygnet’s recent Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.

Mr. Rafael has a strong voice and embodies Jon well, especially in his tender rendition of “Why.” When Jon gets to stage Superbia, his play-within-a-play, Ms. Nossel may have the had the song of the night as one of the actresses in Jon’s production; her powerful “Come to Your Senses” yielded big cheers. Beyond having a nice voice, the affable Mr. Ebanks adds a good deal of humor as well as some touching moments. Rafael is actually playing the keys, and the skillful four-person band — conductor Dr. Randi Rudolph on keys, PJ Bovee on guitar, Danny Chavarian on precision, Christian Reeves on bass) — gave the three a lot to build upon.

AJ Rafael

The story itself is not captivating — it’s more like a song cycle (directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the 2021 film adaptation expanded on this stage version). Those rushing to see it because they love Larson’s more-famous show should know that going in. But maybe it’s just not a fair comparison to make; Larson grew with experience. So while this isn’t a spellbinding story, if you step back and judge Tick, Tick…BOOM! without thinking about Rent, it’s a sweet and soulful look at one man’s struggle to make it in the arts. It’s also a poignant reminder of what 1990 was like, as many endured their tenth year of the Reagan/Bush era while those with HIV/AIDS were still years away from hearing the word “cocktail” to give them any sense of hope.

photos by Karli Cadel

Tick, Tick…BOOM!
Cygnet Theatre Company
Old Town Theater, 4040 Twiggs St.
Wed-Sat at 7; Sat & Sun at 2; Wed at 2 (July 24 only)
ends on August 4, 2024
for tickets (starting at $44), call 619-337-1525 or visit Cygnet

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