‘Tick, Tick … Boom!’ is the bomb

Triangle scores big with Jonathan Larson's musical about turning 30. Now, to get some 29-year-olds in the audience.

I can imagine the conversation already:

“Are you saying it bombed, Mom? Meaning it’s bad?”

“No, Honey, I’m saying it’s the bomb, which means it’s fantastic! Right? Am I saying that right?”

Triangle Productions’ version of Tick, Tick…Boom!—RENT creator Jonathan Larson’s poignant, hilarious autobiographical musical about turning 30—is a near-perfect production of a surprisingly evergreen story, starring a trio of “triple threats”: Drew Harper, Danielle Purdy, and TriPro mainstay James Sharinghousen. It resonates well enough with the company’s loyal senior following; now will some more 29-year-olds please go see it? If you won’t take that recommendation from Mom, take it from ArtsWatch.

 

James Sharinghousen, Drew Harper, Danielle Purdy. Photo: Joshua Dommermuth

James Sharinghousen, Drew Harper, Danielle Purdy. Photo: Joshua Dommermuth

Jon (played by Harper) is an aspiring Broadway musical writer who moonlights as a waiter. He’s staring down the double barrel of his 30th birthday and his perceived lack of achievement. His girlfriend Susan (Purdy) is threatening to hang up her dreams of being a big-time dancer and move to a quieter suburb, and his best friend Michael has recently quit acting for a steady and lucrative corporate gig and begun to revel in material pleasures like his new BMW and fancy apartment. Will Larson—ahem, I mean “Jon”—keep holding out for artistic glory, or follow his dearest companions into socially accepted adulthood? He spends a lot of time brooding about this decision while standing on a symbolic pedestal…or is it a precipice?

Harper shines as the insecure-but-charming Jon. His timing is bang-on; his faces and gestures are priceless. He also deftly navigates the show’s tricky moments of fluid staging, like when he must switch abruptly from confiding in the audience to addressing them as though they were currently attending his workshop production, “Superbia.” Purdy—always exceptional at presenting stiff-jawed resolve through waiflike frailty—makes a great Susan, and her chemistry with Harper crackles. Their makeout scenes are especially playful, punctuated by little grabs, nips and greedy, flickering glances. Sharinghousen as Michael comes off at first—no doubt intentionally—as a smug stuffed shirt, gradually loosening up over the course of the show to reveal his affection for Jon, and eventually breaking under the stress of his own suppressed burdens. When Jon recounts the details of their lifelong friendship during the bro-mantic ballad “Why?,” even the guitarist from the excellent onstage live band (David Cole) seems to have trouble keeping his eyes dry.

Larson, who hams up his idolization of Stephen Sondheim, certainly picked up the legendary Broadway songwriter’s knack for “finishing the hat.” It’s delightful to hear how well he complements the themes of the songs with their cadence, melody, and instrumentation. In No More, while Michael shows off the “pleasantly robotic” apartment he’s earned as a corporate drone, he sings the verses in monotone, then indulges with Jon in minuet waltz interludes (where the pair’s choreography playfully mimics gentility) and exultant rock choruses (while they crow over how much his new digs rock). In Therapy, as Susan and Jon struggle to stick to “I” statements through their mounting frustration with each other, the score grinds into a stilted, redundant call-response: “I [pause] feel [pause] badly about you [pause] feeling [pause] badly about me…”

The character of Jon (and surely the Jonathan who penned him) claims to want to eventually write “the Hair of my generation.” I’d say Jonathan Larson succeeded, and it’s RENT. (Unfortunately, Larson passed away tragically of an undiagnosed medical condition the night before RENT opened off-Broadway.) RENT, like Hair, is idealistic, grandiose, zeitgeisty and ultimately dated. Every generation needs a “Hair of its generation,” because Hair is (ahem) impermanent. What’s “the Hair of this generation, you ask? Probably Glee, making Cory Monteith the real-life Claude of our time. But I digress, because Tick, Tick…Boom! is something different. Its simplicity, sparseness, and self-referential humor help it transcend one time or place—with the notable but forgivable exception of the song 30/90, which makes direct reference to the year 1990. Otherwise, it must be as fresh now as ever. The 27-year-old friend I brought certainly thought so.

What remains a puzzler is how Triangle Productions can offer such variable plays, but such rock-solid musicals. Wouldn’t the latter be harder? All I can say is, Triangle’s Kiss of the Spider Woman was killer, and its Tick, Tick…Boom! is a direct hit. Run, don’t walk, to Tick, Tick…Boom!

 

 

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