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Sunday, June 16, 2024

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PerformanceStage ReviewLife ends at 30? It's complicated (and very Gen...

Life ends at 30? It’s complicated (and very Gen X) in ‘tick, tick… BOOM!’

Jonathan Larson's musical, which itself is turning 30, documents an artist's frustrations at a transitional age.

It seems as though it’s taken forever for NCTC to produce this show. As AD Ed Decker reminded us in his opening curtain speech, the original COVID lockdowns made its place on the schedule uncertain. In 2022, it was optimistically announced for a March 2023 run, only to be cancelled when the atmospheric river storms of late-2022/early-2023 flooded the company’s subterranean headquarters. They had to fundraise for repairs and cancelling the planned March 2023 production.

Now, on “the eve of NCTC’s 43rd birthday,” they’ve finally opened their production of tick, tick… BOOM! (through June 16 at the New Conservatory Theatre Centre, SF), Jonathan Larson’s musical roman à clef about the abject horror of turning 30. Oh, to be that transitional age again.

It’s to Larson’s credit that the late playwright decided to forego at least one pretense and simply name stand-in character “Johnny” (Chris Morrell). Johnny even has an unproduced musical called “Superbia,” just like the real Larson did. Because if you’re gonna tell a Mary Sue story, you might as well go all the way and be real about your inspirations (to the extent the law allows without being libelous).

It’s January 1990 and Johnny’s life is at a crossroads. The small town-born New Yorker has a nagging family back home and a dwindling number of job prospects in the Big Apple. Like many starry-eyed dreamers, he made his way to Liberty City in the hopes of making it big as a creator of Broadway musicals, only to find himself waiting tables for an endless stream of ungrateful customers. Fellow hometown transplant Michael (Marcus J. Paige) has long-since stored away his artistic dreams for a high-paying role on Madison Avenue.

Johnny previously couldn’t imagine taking a 9-5 like that, but a tour through Michael’s gigantic new flat has him reconsidering things. So, too, does the trajectory of John’s relationship with choreographer Susan (Catalina Kumiski). Lately, the two find themselves having more passive-aggressive rows over John’s stagnant life and his inability to commit to Susan. Of course, it won’t be long before those relationship woes, some unexpected news about Michael, and rehearsals for his latest musical all drive home the fact that John needs to start making the most of what time he has.

tick, tick… BOOM! is indisputably a product of its era. Though a mid-‘90s release, its 1990 setting evokes the GenX reflection and pop culture obsession made popular in films like Reality Bites, Singles, clerks., and the like. Beloved as the play’s songs may be, Larson’s script seems more like a test run of ideas for his next musical—the one about the 525,600 minutes. Both musicals, much like the TV show Friends, come from a privileged perspective that led to their generation being labelled “X” in the first place. It had gotten so easy to ignore the world’s problems that daring to show concern about anything was considered a navel-gazing self-indulgence by their elders. Time has shown otherwise.

Larson’s play isn’t as known to the mainstream as the aforementioned films, but it’s influence is apparent in similar works like Fun Home and A Strange Loop. (Fortunately, Larson’s piece doesn’t drown in grim masochism the way A Strange Loop does.) If you’ve seen such works, it may be hard to distinguish this one from the ones it inspired. Still, the best thing working on Larson’s side was his composition. A background plot thread is how John refuses to give up his art when his music has already gotten positive remarks from his hero (some guy named “Sondheim”). It persists because everyone in art asks themselves whether it’s a hobby they can ignore or their true calling to pursue. Since everyone has a different answer, seeing each reply continues to make the question intriguing.

Director-choreographer Cindy Goldfield certainly has a willing trio at her disposal, even if they appear to be older than the characters they portray. The always-reliable Chris Morrell certainly finds the right artistic longing for Johnny, even if the youthful aloofness doesn’t quite strike. Having never heard him sing, I was pleasantly surprised. Off-hand, I’m not familiar with the work of Kumiski or Paige, but they similarly bring the right amount of heart and vocals to their roles. I dare say that Kumiski—the youngest in the cast?—fares the best at believably portraying someone in their 20s, as it may be her age.

‘tick, tick…BOOM!’

Goldfield’s choreography seemed to be a bit low-wattage on opening night. I’m not sure if it was directed that way or if they actors just had a certain energy, but they spent more time walking around Micaela Kieko Sinclair’s half-bandstand set (with a classic Mac to distinguish John’s room stage-right) rather than dashing or floating across it.

With opening night taking place days before the show’s COVID-safe Enhanced Safety Performance, I again knew that I’d be one of the few masked audience members in the full house. Before the show officially began, my Aranet4’s CO² readings hit 1033ppm. Still, by the end of the show, the readings lingered at a “respectable” 1521ppm.

Maybe it’s the way 30 seems to be the threshold point for most people; the age when time seems to be running out because the human brain begins perceiving the days and years as shorter when they once seemed to go on forever. It certainly shouldn’t be the end of someone’s life, even if it’s considered the end of their youth. If anything, it should be the point when one seriously begins committing more seriously to that which drives them.

Jonathan Larson didn’t live beyond his 30s, but eventually received the lasting Broadway legacy he’d dreamed of. tick, tick… BOOM! seems like s small part of that legacy, but it still shows him on the road to solidifying it. There’s an uneven energy to NCTC’s long-in-development production, but there’s a good amount of talent. Its long gestation alone is worth, at least, a look. It may even inspire someone to make a change in their life. You never know (especially at 30).

TICK, TICK… BOOM! runs through June 16 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, SF. Tickets and further info here.

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Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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