While ”Seasons of Love” was the unquestioned centerpiece of the late American composer Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent, it was the more intimate ”One Song Glory” that broke the hearts of audience members.
This was not only because it was an exquisitely crafted piece of songwriting, but because Rent and everything associated with it would forever be tied to Larson’s tragic death just hours before the show’s final dress rehearsal. It’s hard to sit in a darkened theater hearing the character Roger trying to create ”one song to leave behind” without making some connections between the lives on the stage and the too short life of their creator.
What then to do with a show like tick, tick…Boom!, where the audience seems to be actually hearing from Larson himself? Is it possible to simply view it as a piece of theater? Can you separate the playwright from the play?
Boom began life as a rock monologue, written and performed by Larson himself, before evolving (thanks to the work of playwright David Auburn, who reworked the piece after composer’s death) into the three-person version now playing at Alexandria’s Metro Stage. The musical tells the story of Jon (Stephen Gregory Smith), an undiscovered composer preparing, with equal amounts of dread, for the workshop of his new musical — Superbia — and the arrival of his 30th birthday.
His anxiety is added to by the fact that his girlfriend Susan (Felicia Curry), a dancer, is looking to make changes in her life. She wants to get out of New York, away from living in illegal sublets and teaching ballet to ”wealthy and untalented children” and having to take two subways and a bus to get to Jon’s.
Jon’s roommate Michael (Matt Pearson) is getting ready to make a move of his own. Having left behind his life as a struggling actor, Michael now works in market research and can finally afford to live without a roommate in an apartment where the bathtub is actually in the bathroom.
And so we watch and listen as Jon struggles to put his life in some kind of order before turning 30. Which would seem almost funny were it not so difficult to separate this play from its playwright. The audience can’t help but feel the urgency of this number — Larson died at 35 — or ignore the familiar sounds of the musical that made Jonathan Larson a household name.
Several of Boom‘s numbers, including ”30/90,” ”Real Life,” and the phenomenal ”Come to Your Senses,” have all the pull, heart and energy of Rent‘s best numbers. In fact, it’s hard not to begin matching songs from the two musicals up in your head, trying to see which one might have given birth to the other.
Other times, we’re able to hear Larson take a step out of his own style and try on the shoes of his hero, Stephen Sondheim. While much has been made of the patterning of Larson’s ”Sunday” as something between homage and parody of Sondheim’s song of the same name from Sunday in the Park with George, far more successful is Larson’s ”Therapy.” Performed with the same panic and no-room-for-breath speed as Sondheim’s ”(Not) Getting Married Today,” the song clearly demonstrates that while Larson elected to live in rock music, his talent was far from limited.
The cast is entertaining and enjoyable. Smith, a 2004 Helen-Hayes Award winner for his work in 110 in the Shade, turns in a solid performance as Jon. He has an easy stage presence that makes his to-the-audience monologues natural and genuine.
With a voice that belies her diminutive frame, Curry is the powerhouse of the ensemble. She’s well matched by Pearson, who provides a necessary balance to Smith’s gentle, pleasantly strained vocals and Curry’s room-filling sound.
Unfortunately, all three seem to struggle with choreography and blocking that is far larger than the house, and extenuates the fact that these actors are negotiating a small stage that also houses a four-piece band and an electric piano. The overall effect is claustrophobic and distracting.
Likewise, some of the decisions made in terms of costuming and set, while very minimal, feel out of sync with a show that began life as a monologue. One wonders what would happen if things were stripped down even further, allowing the audience to invest more of its attention in the music and less in the mechanics.
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In the end, tick, tick…Boom! will probably always live in the uncomfortable shadow of Rent and the memory of Jonathan Larson. Some will fall in love with the show, embracing the foreshadowing of what was to come and those moments when the composer tried on another voice. Others will only be able to see Boom as a show that is not Rent, with music and lyrics that still had room to grow and develop if its creator had had more time.
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