The struggle is real for the striving New York City artists in Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM! (★★★★☆), the brilliant, semi-autobiographical, nineties rock musical the composer debuted as a self-performed monologue around the time he started working on RENT.
Licking his wounds following the failure to launch Superbia, the musical he hoped would be his masterpiece, Larson bared his longing, self-doubt, ambition, and anger in a boldly firsthand account of an ambitious composer hellbent on mounting his masterpiece Superbia before he turns 30.
In the show, reworked from Larson’s original monologue into a stage musical for a three-person cast, the clock is ticking for Jon, who’s prepping for a Superbia workshop performance that could change his life. Or, it could augur the end of his theater composing career before it’s truly begun.
As he sings in the show’s opening number “30/90,” the clock is ticking for every Peter Pan and Tinker Bell, time inexorably racing ahead of their dreams, faster than they can keep up with bills and obligations.
Fearing failure, and, whether motivated by a sense of his own mortality or just propelled by ego, Jon’s drive to create something great, and taste the spoils of his labor, feels especially urgent in Christian Montgomery’s impassioned performance.
Urgency might be a calling card for four-time Helen Hayes Award nominee Montgomery, who’s distinguished himself on D.C. area stages with electric, often eccentric turns, like his endearing Seymour in Constellation’s memorable Little Shop of Horrors.
Montgomery ends “30/90” on a literal and emotional high note that he holds firmly in his grasp until director Michael Windsor’s heartfelt staging at Monumental Theatre arrives at its graceful, plucked-from-real-life coda.
A dynamic storyteller, he sings Larson’s stage-rock score with grit and control, beautifully met in harmony by Alex De Bard, as Susan, Jon’s dancer girlfriend. Not necessarily powerhouse vocalists (or dancers), they deliver powerfully connected duets — and trios, where Tyler Dobies, portraying Jon’s gay best friend Michael, is involved.
Whereas Susan is considering relocating her life and reorienting her dreams somewhere far from Manhattan, Michael, an actor-turned-marketing exec, has already stopped chasing his big break. He’s ready to embrace the spoils of corporate America — or he pretends to be — while also harboring a painful secret.
Dobies’ performance only tenuously conveys the gravity of what Michael has left behind, and the challenges he sees ahead for himself. But he and Montgomery forge convincing bonds of brotherhood, a tender parallel to the rocky romance played between Montgomery and De Bard, whose assertive delivery of Jon and Susan’s fight song “Therapy” is the production’s musical highpoint.
Music director Marika Contouris, on keyboards leading a solid four-piece band, favors the cast with strong musical accompaniment and arrangements that fill but don’t overwhelm Windsor’s immersive staging. As if Jon were regaling the crowd at a coffeehouse with his bittersweet saga, the audience watches from comfy café couches and armchairs spaced around the Ainslie Arts Center auditorium.
Montgomery, De Bard, and Dobies act, sing, and dance in the space between audience members, on tables, back and forth over the furniture — surrounded by wall clocks hung around the room, a literal, if decoratively handsome, nod to the uninterrupted sweep of time.
The intimacy of the experience helps sell the street-level, urban milieu of twentysomething artistes waiting tables at a diner, rubbing elbows with other hustlers while pursuing their dreams.
The Sondheim-silky chords of songs like “Why” — Jon’s fond recollection of friendship and clear-eyed contemplation of the future — sell the notion that Larson did create something great out of the disappointment that prompted tick, tick…BOOM!, which, in Monumental’s rockin’ iteration, manifests the promise of its dearly missed, forever-young composer.
tick, tick…BOOM! runs through July 31 at the Ainsley Arts Center, Episcopal High School campus, 3900 W. Braddock Rd., Alexandria. Tickets are $65. Visit www.monumentaltheatre.org.
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