by Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Most theater folk know or at least have heard of the recent Broadway sensation called Hamilton. Now, about 20 years ago, there was another Broadway sensation that caused the same kind of ruckus (whether warranted or unwarranted, depending on who you talk to) written by a Lyricist/Composer/Author named Jonathan Larson called RENT. Well, let’s go back a few years before that and this same Lyricist/Composer/Author wrote a small, three person musical called Tick, Tick… Boom!, an autobiographical account of what he called his failure and frustrations up till that time.
Tick, Tick… Boom! with Book, Music, & Lyrics by Jonathan Larson and Vocal Arrangements and Orchestrations by Stephen Oremus is the latest offering from Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre and is Directed and Choreographed by Jillian Locklear Bauersfeld with Music Direction by Michael W. Tan.
I’m going to admit, I’ve never been a RENT fan by any stretch of the imagination, but… I was pleasantly surprised and quite entertained by this production of Tick, Tick… Boom! and I just might have to give RENT another more comprehensive listen!
Beginning with the production aspect, Set Designer/Scenic Artist Alan Zemla used the small Spotlighters space very wisely by not cluttering it with frivolous set pieces but with six black boxes that were moved around and acted as all the set pieces including a bed, a BMW, office furniture, and convenience store counter. The moving of the boxes was incorporated into the blocking and with no other clutter on stage, it was easy for the actors to transition from one scene to the next. Also impressive are the theatre walls themselves. Each wall is cleverly painted to represent New York City from New York Subway walls to a representative skyline. Zemla is to be commended for his work in this production.
Costume Design by Andrew Malone was simple and contemporary as this play is pretty much set in modern times, 1990 to be exact, and, though the “skinny jeans” (or what looks like skinny jeans) the character of Jon is wearing throughout the show may be a bit of a stretch, the plaid button-down was a perfect choice, as were the outfits of the other two characters.
The space is very unique and small with pillars on the four corners of the stage and I imagine it’s a bit difficult to light a production but Lighting Designer Fuzz Roark managed very nicely. Though a little dark at times, the production was lit very appropriately and simply with no major bells and whistles, which is not needed in this production, anyway, and Roark’s lighting scheme was spot on.
Again, being a small space, one would think sound wouldn’t be an issue, however, it is quite a feat to launch a full fledged musical in a small space but Sound Designers Lanoree Blake and Fuzz Roark managed to do just that. There is a full, live pit orchestra only inches away from the stage and none of the actors are equipped with a microphone so, there are only a few times when the balance between the orchestra and the actors is a little wonky and if an actor is on the opposite side of the stage from where one is sitting it’s difficult to hear every line, but I lost nothing from the story and was able to keep up. The sound effects used were appropriate and well placed and moved the story along quite nicely.
According to the Director’s Note, Director Jillian Locklear Bauersfeld had directed Tick, Tick… Boom! About 10 years ago, while a directing major in college. She states that production was a success and though I can’t speak for her previous attempt, I’m tending to agree with her because this production can be chalked up as a success, as well! Anyone who takes on directing theatre in the round starts off with a challenge, but Bauersfeld pulls this off flawlessly, keeping her actors moving and using her space wisely as to not forget any section of the audience. Her blocking is very fluid and this keeps the pace of the piece moving nicely along, not too fast and not too slow. She seemed to have understood these characters and managed to pull thought-out performances from her cast, and her vision of Jonathan Larson’s life was clear and apparent with minimal sets, costumes, and props.
Music Direction by Baltimore theatre veteran Michael W. Tan (who also plays the keyboard) is superb as he brings the songs of pre-RENT Jonathan Larson to life. There is a certain modern feeling one must understand when dealing with Jonathan Larson and Tan seemed to understand this perfectly. Not the usual “show tunes,” Tan manages to pull the modern pop-rock style from his actors that fit this show like a glove. The fantastic orchestra he’s pulled together, including Christine MacDonald on guitar (with John Jeffries subbing on guitar on certain shows), Greg Bell on bass, and William Georg on percussion, also help make this production all the more enjoyable.
The only comment I can make on the music of this show is that it is amazing. It is certainly a Jonathan Larson score but it’s modern and melodic and the upbeat songs are driving and the ballads are poignant. If one is familiar with the more famous show from Larson, one can hear the beginnings of most of those songs in these songs. I enjoyed the variety of the score and the attempt at using different styles such as the country and western inspired “Therapy”, the rocking “No More,” and nostalgic, oldies sound of “Sugar.” These upbeat, fun songs were balanced out nicely with poignant power ballads such as “See Her Smile” and “Real Life” that didn’t slow the show down at all, but moved the story along. Also, among these different styles, these songs have a 90s feel to them and, as a kid of the 90s, I was thoroughly entertained!
Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, it’s a very small cast consisting of three actors – a perfect size cast for the space. Included in the cast is Garret Zink as Jon, the hapless lyricist/composer/author who’s about to turn 30 years old and doesn’t think he’s done anything with his life, Clare Kneebone as Susan the understanding, but yearning girlfriend of Jon, and Rob Wall as Michael, the forward moving best friend.
Jon is the first character to whom we’re introduced and he serves as the narrator throughout the show. Garret Zink has a very good presence and seems comfortable on stage with perfect articulation even though his Baltimore accent peeks in occasionally. Although his performance seems a little forced at times and his flailing hand gestures sometimes draws attention away from what he’s saying, he still pulls off the role very nicely and you do feel for the character and even relate to him as Zink brings a certain honesty to the character. The Larson score can be challenging (his mentor was Stephen Sondheim for goodness sake!) and aside from struggling a bit in the upper register, Zink was able to make a good showing with appropriate style and presentation.
Rob Wall as Michael was an absolute joy to watch. From the moment he steps on stage with his big smile and smooth, friendly voice, Wall makes Michael a character who’s easy to like. He’s very comfortable and confident on stage and he moves easily and with purpose. According to his bio, he sang in the Naval Academy Mens Glee Club and was the announcer for Naval Academy parades and with his velvet, booming voice, I don’t doubt it! He performed his songs flawlessly and not only hit the notes, but had that extra understanding of the songs such as “Johnny Can’t Decide” and “Real Life” where he takes the reigns and that takes his performance to a much deeper level. Wall also gives Michael a certain amount of calm that balances out the agitation that Zink gives the Jon character. Wall is certainly one to watch and you don’t want to miss him in this performance!
This leaves us with Clare Kneebone, who takes on the role of Susan, the girlfriend. Kneebone is the standout in this production and not only because she’s the only female but because she plays this role brilliantly, confidently, and flawlessly. As she stepped onto the stage, it was clear she was a powerhouse and very comfortable on stage. Her performance was very natural and purposeful as it was clear she understood her character and what her character was going through. Along with a fantastic acting talent (as she plays various characters, including a theatrical agent and an actress in a workshop of a new show), Kneebone has a very impressive musical talent as well and her big, beautiful voice shines throughout this production, namely in her solo number, “Come to Your Senses,” a true power ballad in which she’s not even playing the role of Susan, but of another character – the actress in the workshop of a new show, Karessa. Her performance alone should be reason enough to see this show!
Final thought… Tick, Tick… Boom! Is a show that shouldn’t be missed! Even if you aren’t a huge RENT fan, that’s OK because this show absoltuely stands on its own. Yes, you will see the beginnings of that more famous show, but it’s to be expected as it’s the same lyricist/composer/author and it’s definitely his unique style. This cast is great, the music is fun, and story is certainly relatable! Go see this show!
This is what I thought of this production of Tick, Tick… Boom!.… what do you think?
Tick, Tick… Boom! will play through July 31, Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm with a Ten Spot Thursday on July 14 at 8pm at Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call 410-752-1225 or purchase them online.