With Rent, Jonathan Larson wrote one of the seminal musicals of the modern age — though he didn’t live long enough to savor his triumph nor to give the world a chance to know him better. Now the Red Branch Theatre Company is closing out its season-long look at musicals and the people who write them with what is essentially a behind-the-scenes visit with Larson as he pursued his dream of writing “a Hair for the 1990s.”
Tick, Tick … BOOM! grew out of a sort of musical monologue that Larson wrote and performed while supporting himself as a waiter in New York City. It unmistakably springs from the same well as Rent, containing many of the same musical motifs and beat-driven styles. The book also expresses the angst and self-doubts of a money-strapped artist as he approaches the ripe old age of … tick, tick …. 30!
Sadly, what Larson may have been sensing was his impending mortality. After the composer’s death at age 36, playwright David Auburn took the piece and fashioned it into a more theater-friendly libretto with a cast of three. The central character, though, is unmistakably Jon, a young actor and musician with a burning desire to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim fans will delight in picking out the show’s allusions to the master — everything from cribs from West Side Story and a delightful parody of Sunday in the Park With George (from a beleagured food server’s perspective) to its closing echoes of Company.
This is navel-gazing of the highest order, and Tick, Tick … BOOM! would not amount to much without the backstory of Rent and the continued interest in its creator.
At Red Branch, newcomer Patrick Prebula makes for an appealing and engaging Jon. He gets the rhythms of the artist’s inner dialogues right, sensing what is gold and what amounts to a throw-away line.
Prebula’s pleasingly musical voice seems as comfortable in a heartbroken falsetto as when whipping up a rock-laced lather. His projection of every word out to the audience could stand some polishing, but that is sure to come as the run proceeds.
Ironically, this production amounts to a star showcase for another Red Branch stage newcomer named Eben K. Logan. Even in an under-written role as Jon’s dance-teacher girlfriend, Logan wins tons of audience sympathy with a full-bodied vocal delivery and winsome charm. By show’s end, she also gets big laughs in a variety of other characterizations and accents, including a Manhattan talent agent whose best years and big clients are all behind her.
On opening night, Logan absolutely nailed her impressive solo number, “Come To Your Senses,” starting quietly and building to a Mama Rose ferocity without ever faltering in breath control or tonal accuracy.
Also providing strong and varied support is company regular Cory Jones as Jon’s longtime friend and token example of the material success to be found outside of the arts. Jones gets all the dramatic subtexts right, adds comedy when required, and makes the most of every vocal harmony and solo.
Director Jennifer Spieler uses the entire auditorium as a playing area, making the theater itself a rightful part of the action. Tom Cole’s minimal set design manages to be stylish and functional on modest means, helped out considerably by Lighting Designer Corey Brown’s spot-on cues and moody effects.
As always at Red Branch, the live musical accompaniment is first-rate throughout. Wil Lewis III leads a tight three-piece ensemble that never misses a beat nor arrives late for the party.
Red Branch starts its next subscription season in March with a number of interesting musical picks built around the theme of love and loss. Notably, composer Jason Robert Brown will make a rare live appearance in a cabaret/fundraiser on March 17, 2014 to share with audiences his experiences writing such modern favorites as Songs For a New World, Parade, and The Last Five Years, which will be the theater’s opening spring presentation.
Subscription plans run from $54 to $85, and may be one’s best hope for scoring tickets to the Jason Robert Brown cabaret in this most intimate of settings.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes without an intermission.
Tick, tick… BOOM! plays through October 13, 2013 at Red Branch Theatre Company at the Drama Learning Center — 9130-I Red Branch Road, in Columbia, MD. For tickets ($18-20), call (410) 997-9352, or purchase them online on the right side of their homepage.
Remembering Jonathan Larson; or “How to Wake Up a Generation” & Special Ticket Offer for ‘Tick, tick… BOOM!’ by Stephanie Williams.
Jonathan Larson sings “Sunday” from Tick, tick…BOOM!
The cast of Red Branch’s Tick, tick…BOOM! performs a preview of “Johnny Can’t Decide.”