Wine lovers are familiar with the adequate little red wine that better restaurants serve as their vin ordinaire. Such a brew is the mildly amusing, modestly enjoyable posthumous Jonathan Larson musical tick, tick … BOOM!, 90 minutes of eighties rock interspersed with autobiographical musings in monologue or dialogue. Those who loved Rent will find it a winsome prologue; those who didn’t, surprisingly bearable.
Larson had failed to sell his futuristic musical Superbia at backers’ auditions, so he made BOOM! as a one-man show for band and himself as a pianist, singer, and enacter of all the parts. This didn’t work out, either, and he abandoned it. Now the five versions of BOOM! have been edited into one by Proof’s David Auburn, and one performer has become three: one who is always Jon; one who is mostly his girlfriend, Susan, but also both his agent and Karessa, the female lead in the Superbia audition, among others; and one who is mostly Michael, his best buddy and former roommate, who deserted the theater and struck it rich in advertising, into which he is trying to lure Jon.
There are arrangements and orchestrations by Stephen Oremus, who leads a lusty four-piece onstage band, and cunningly adroit bits of staging by Scott Schwartz. The splendid Raúl Esparza acts, sings, and agonizes as Jon with consummate nimbleness and charm; Jerry Dixon is suavely accomplished as Michael and the other men; and Amy Spanger vastly surpasses her work in Kiss Me, Kate as the several women.
The title tick, tick … BOOM! refers to the 30-year-old Jon’s sense of his time for making it in show business running out, and the big bang, death, lying in wait – which, we now know, struck as an aortic aneurysm on the eve of Rent’s Off Broadway premiere. These forebodings are tactfully – perhaps too tactfully – played down by this adaptation, which aims to end upbeat, so that its tick is better than its boom. We do feel for Jon as his best friend sells out, his girl is about to leave him, his agent is no help; we laugh with him as he perseveres in ironic penury and heroic pigheadedness. The show inevitably invites comparison to A Class Act, another musical about singular success on Broadway and lives cut indecently short.
Melody does not come easy to Larson, but it does come at times, and his beat is insidiously hypnotic. The lyrics have their clevernesses as well as their platitudes, not to mention excessive repetition of key phrases. The best number is an affectionate takeoff on Larson’s idol, Sondheim, in which the Grande Jatte becomes a downtown diner, and both words and music ring droll changes on Sondheim’s “Sunday” from you-know-what. A promising duet for lovers at cross-purposes (“I feel bad that / You feel bad about / Me feeling bad about / You feeling bad about …”), stretches its conceit to inordinate length, but Esparza and Spanger, in deftly dreamed-up stage business, make a meal of it. I predict a decent run, without David Auburn or anyone else having to check out the night before the opening.
At Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre, where Robert (Brustein) has anointed Robert (Woodruff) as his successor, I caught the latter’s first production as artistic director designate. It was Richard II, formerly by Shakespeare, now by Woodruff, in a production that made my gorge rise uncontrollably, until my feet carried me out – giggling, groaning, and despairing – at intermission. Imagine the very considerable worst that Robert Wilson, Anne Bogart, and Peter Sellars could concoct, mash it together, douse it with a sauce of Charles Ludlam at his campiest, sprinkle it with Peter Brook at his Brookiest, and you may have an inkling of what was perpetrated here. What this augurs for A.R.T., my pen lacks acid, arsenic, and sulphur to convey in so short a space.
tick, tick … BOOM!
Music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson; at the Jane Street Theatre.
Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre