WOW! StageScene LA Review of tick, tick...BOOM!
With its remarkable Netflix adaptation now garnering much-deserved raves, the time could not be riper for Up Next Productions to revive tick, tick…BOOM! as off-Broadway audiences first discovered it twenty years ago, restaged in 2021 by a terrifically talented director and choreographer and performed by three dynamic young triple threats at Thymele Arts.
A decade before Mark, Roger, Mimi, Angel, Collins, Joanne, Maureen, and Benny and their bohemian lives made musical theater history in RENT, Jonathan Larson was the quintessential starving artist, devoting seven long years to writing Superbia, an ambitious musical that ended up going nowhere to the composer-playwright’s soul-crushing chagrin.
Rather than throw in the towel, however, Jon put his feelings about seeing his 20s coming to an end without any notable career success into the one-man show that serves as the basis for tick, tick … BOOM!, adapted as a three-performer musical by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn five years after Larson’s untimely death at thirty-six.
“The sound you are hearing is not a technical problem,” Jon (Isaac Robinson-Smith) tells us as he sits in front of his keyboard, the tick tick ticking of a clock echoing in the background. “It is not a musical cue. It is not a joke. It is the sound of one man’s mounting anxiety. I … am that man.”
With his 30th birthday fast approaching, Jon can’t help comparing his still unsuccessful life with that of his childhood bff Michael (Christopher Fishburne), a successful business executive with a fancy sports car and more brand name outfits than he could possibly count. Meanwhile, girlfriend Susan (Mandie Hittleman) is thinking about giving up her Manhattan job teaching ballet to “wealthy and untalented children” and moving out of the city.
tick, tick…BOOM! follows Jon during the days leading up to his birthday as he prepares for the Superbia workshop, flirts and quarrels with Susan, learns that Michael has worries that far exceed his own … and eventually finds the strength to persevere.
Those familiar only with Larson’s RENT will be delighted to discover the composer-lyricist’s signature sound ringing forth loud and clear in numbers like “30/90,” “Sugar,” and “Louder Than Words,” zestfully performed under Jenna Byrd’s impressive music direction and electrifyingly backed by Byrd on keys, Ariel Bellvalaire on guitar, Sarah Noel on bass, and Ian Nakazawa on drums.
Clint Foley follows his 2019 staging of [title of show] (I called his direction of that musical comedy treat “supremely imaginative”) with another crowd-pleasing winner, ingeniously staged and impressively performed by a trio of young performers who put their own stamps on roles now earning Oscar buzz for Andrew Garfield, Robin de Jesús, and Alexandra Shipp on the silver screen.
You won’t find a more instantly likable Jon than Robinson-Smith (like Foley, Byrd, and choreographer Jasmine Ejan a UC Irvine grad), entirely captivating in a role he plays with contagious joy tempered with the pesky doubts and fears that had Jonathan Larson worrying he’d never make it big on Broadway. (Robinson-Smith’s passionate eleventh hour “Why” earns him deserved cheers.)
Fishburne is quite touching as Jon’s childhood buddy Michael, and Hittleman does winning work in a dual role that has her playing both Jon’s sympathetic girlfriend Susan and Superbia leading lady Karessa, whose stratospheric “Come To Your Senses” brings down the house. (Fishburne and Hittleman appear amusingly as Jon’s parents and share the cameo role of his chain-smoking agent Rosa to hilarious effect.)
Since its 2005 Los Angeles Premiere, its Up Next debut benefits enormously from one exhilarating Ejan-choreographed dance sequence after another, executed in perfect sync by the production’s star trio.
Thymele Arts’ loft-like new downstairs performance space provides a couldn’t-be-more-New-York setting for this couldn’t-be-more-New-York musical.
Costume designer Autumn Harrison earns multiple snaps for a collection of outfits that not only fit each character but allow Fishburne and Hittleman to distinguish between multiple roles, and sound designer Xanthe Huynh does a fine job of mixing amped vocals and instrumentals while adding ambience-establishing effects.
tick, tick…BOOM! is produced by Ari Stidham. Angela Kuebelbeck is stage manager. Jimmy McCammon is technical director and Paul Roberson is sound technician. Casting is by Megan Ruble. Lena Tufenkjian alternates with Byrd on keys. Nora Feldman is publicist.
If you’re one of millions (myself included) who found themselves dazzled by Lin Manuel Miranda’s Netflix smash, you won’t want to miss out on the chance to see how Miranda took a three-person chamber piece and transformed it into one of the finest movie musicals in years.
Whichever version you see first, each has its own appeal. I myself could not be more thrilled to have reexperienced tick, tick…BOOM! live on stage. It had me captivated from exuberant start to emotionally potent finish.
The Atlas Space at Thymele Arts, 5481 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles. (Entrance on Western Ave.) Through February 13. Sundays at 7:00. No performance on Sunday December 26. Tickets available at www.UpNextProds.com
November 28, 2021
Photos by Jasmine Ejan were taken at tech rehearsal and do not reflect the look of an actual performance
Current Covid Policy: Patrons must be vaccinated, show ID and proof of full vaccination required upon entry, and wear a mask while inside the theater complex.