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Small theatres, like small towns, are abundant. But like small towns, just because these venues are tiny doesn't mean they can't be immensely entertaining. Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theatres are obvious examples. But so are theatres such as Triad Stage's UpStage Cabaret, located two flights above the main stage.
Directed by Brian Conger, Triad Stage artistic associate, tick, tick … BOOM! is yet another indication that a production in a small venue can be one of the hottest tickets around, in this case, a contained explosion of acting and music.
tick, tick … BOOM! is the musical autobiography of Jonathan Larson, best known as the composer of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning rock opera Rent. Larson died of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 36 one day before the world premiere of Rent.
Originally staged Off-Off-Broadway in 1990, the musical tick, tick … BOOM! was dubbed by Larson as a "rock monologue," a new genre at the time.
The musical evolved over the years, in large part because of Larson's untimely death. It was reworked to include two more actors, and this is the production we see at UpStage Cabaret. With Joshua Morgan as Jon and Terrance Johnson and Meghan Hoffman as the other characters, tick, tick … BOOM! is just about as perfect as a small production can be.
A four-piece band plays behind a screen that is a giant clock face (kudos to scenic designer Matt Sale) and, thanks to strategically-placed subway signs, we know we're in the Bohemian section of New York City's Greenwich Village. A few times the superb music seemed to overpower the actors' voices, but it's a hard line to walk in a small space.
It would be a given that one of the challenges of an intensely personal musical such as this is trying to keep the actors from "bursting into song" in an unnatural way. tick, tick …. BOOM! flows from dialogue (or monologue) to lyrics so naturally that sometimes you're almost unaware of the transition. This is a tribute to both the speaking and singing voices of the three actors. This is Morgan's first Triad Stage appearance but hopefully not his last.
The plot can perhaps be described as a joyous exploration of indecision, and songs reflect the theme of Larson's own creative struggle. Beginning with "30/90," a lament on turning the big 3-0, and ending with "Louder Than Words," about the questions an individual and a generation ask themselves, Larson's lyrics cut close to the bone. Morgan, Hoffman and Johnson deliver them with a combination of angst, anticipation, and artistic fortitude.
What makes this production so poignant is not only witnessing a chronicle of artistic conflict, but also knowing that the "clock" inside Larson's head was indeed ticking out the final years of his brilliant work. Director Bryan Conger calls it a love letter to Larson; at the very least, it is a tribute that should not be missed by any lover of the theatre.
The show continues through 3/31. For details, see the sidebar.