tick, tick...BOOM! - Jane Street Theatre - Saturday, September 1, 2001

I have never been a huge fan of Rent. While I have admired some of the music, for the most part, it spoke to a world that has never been and hopefully never will be mine. Besides, the show dated very quickly--I've heard rumors it was already mostly irrelevant by the time the show opened on Broadway, but certainly by the time the tour arrived in Seattle in the summer of 1998, there was little left of import in Rent. Due to Jonathan Larson's death, the show never received the attention it deserved, but because of his death, it took on a mythos and popularity it may never have had otherwise.

tick, tick...BOOM!, however, received much more of Larson's attention, though the show has come a long way from its original incarnation as a one-man piece to be performed by Larson himself. The story, about a young Broadway composer struggling to hold on to his art, his girlfriend, and his best friend (whom he perceives as being lost to corporate America), tick, tick...BOOM! is actually about one thing and one thing only: Raul Esparza.

Esparza, as Larson, completely dominates the evening. Everything is required of him--a wide range of acting, a stunning vocal range he manipulates with great ease, some dancing, and a stage presence electric enough to make us feel Larson's plight. Esparza provides them all in abundance, and is always at the center of the show. He almost never leaves the stage during the show's 90 minute running time, and though I saw the second of two shows on a Saturday, there was no apparent evidence he was suffering from the tiniest bit of strain. In a marathon of a show for an actor/singer, Esparza ran away with the gold easily.

Overwhelming though he may be, Esparza is not alone in the cast. He is joined by Amy Spanger and Jerry Dixon, both of whom play multiple roles, but primarily portray Jonathan's girlfriend, Susan, and his best friend Michael, respectively. Spanger is a powerful presence as well, and she's got plenty of chemistry with Esparza, while possessing a powerful voice of her own. Dixon sings well, but his character isn't fleshed out quite as well, so he gets less of a chance to show off. His supporting characters are far more interesting than the lead Michael, but nearly anyone would be the weakest of the three performers when facing Esparza and Spanger.

In terms of the music (which I'm guessing is supposed to be the real star of the show), I far preferred it to that in Rent. The score is much more varied, exciting, and real. From the opening number of "30/90," which sets the story up in the week leading up to Larson's thirtieth birthday, through "Louder Than Words," which closes the show at his birthday party, the music successfully characterizes the people far better than the music in Rent did. Particular standouts were the drop-dead hilarious "Sunday," a parody of Stephen Sondheim's song of the same name (complete with Mandy Patinkin mannerisms!), "Therapy," about the travails of Jonathan and Susan's relationship, and "Come to Your Senses," the song in Superbia, the show-within-the-show that Larson is trying to get workshopped, and a stunning tour-de-force for Spanger. But the score throughout is uncommonly strong and supported; only one song, the admittedly touching "Why?" dealing with friendship and loss drags on too long, but is of sufficient enough dramatic and musical quality to not overly force the issue.

Scott Schwartz has provided some clever direction against Anna Louizos's sets and Kenneth Posner's lights, but examining the significance of their work is difficult, since Schwartz has created a complete piece in which only one element, Esparza, stands out. The sense of truth and unity throughout is what makes tick, tick...BOOM! the special experience it is, and though it lacks the inherent emotional resonance another recent pseudo-biomusical (A Class Act) had, it provides some of a different kind, since we are too painfully aware of the eventual outcome of the story.

Those with an interest in Rent will want to see tick, tick...BOOM!... Those who love musical theatre must not miss it, and anyone else should not miss it. tick, tick...BOOM! is important and resonant, everything theatre truly must be. Too often while watching it, I wished it had been for this, and not for the unwieldy beheamoth of Rent that Jonathan Larson had gained his greatest fame. This is, without a doubt, his stronger work, and it--and by extension him--should never be forgotten.

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