Choosing a show for a company’s inaugural production is like deciding on a dress for the debutante ball. The primary goal is to draw attention, to dazzle the room and attract the eyes of the crowd. But just as important is to choose something that speaks to who you are and how you hope to be perceived. In choosing to stage Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick… BOOM! for its DC debut, QuackenSteele Theatre Company accomplishes both these goals with conviction and grace. The production is a dazzling dress, glittering with the talents of its three tremendous performers. It’s also the sort of show that immediately establishes QuackenSteele as an emerging force in DC theatre and a company for which the sky is the limit.
QuackenSteele co-founder Lou Steele anchors a strong cast as Jon, a 29-year-old teenager (and Larson’s composer meta-persona) whose struggle to make it in New York brings about a painful – if not toe-tappingly melodic – early midlife crisis. Set in 1990, tick, tick… BOOM! sets its focus on Jon’s angsty struggle to deal with feelings of self-doubt while also warding off the titular tick, tick, ticks of his mind, counting down not just toward his milestone 30th birthday but also toward the explosive moment when he’ll be forced to make a life-altering decision about the future.
That decision is made all the more difficult by Jon’s dancer girlfriend Susan (an absolutely radiant Madeline Botteri), who complicates things when she announces her intention to start a new life in Cape Cod – with or without Jon. In seeking sage advice from his corporate hotshot best friend Michael (a cool, confident David Little), Jon begins to question how long he can put up with his ascetic lifestyle and the fruitlessness of his pursuits.
The musical, capably helmed by director Walter Ware III, poses the same age-old questions tackled by every artist: Is my career going anywhere? Am I just fooling myself? What happens if it doesn’t work out? But the magic of tick, tick… BOOM! is in the candid and honest ways Jon shares his struggle with us and makes it our own.
This is where Steele’s intense and honest performance stands out. His gritted-teeth determination sears through every monologue. The tenors of existential turmoil resonate in every note of song. He carries Jon through moments of wide-eyed hope (as in the Gatsby-esque number “Green Green Dress”) and plunges deep into periods of furrowed-brow resentment (the Sondheim-evoking “Sunday” being an example). Jon is a character about whom Steele clearly feels deeply and the heights of this passion are palpable throughout.
David Little provides the show with a much-needed counterpoint to Steele’s frenetic Jon. His Michael is a brick foundation, a fixed planet around which Jon orbits wildly. The two blend beautifully, both in their considerable vocal talents and in the subtleties of their body language. Where Jon wears his demons on his sleeves, waving them around for the whole world to see, Michael’s suffering is one marked by brooding internal darkness. Little’s take on the solemnly reflective “Real Life” is a standout number in a show with no scarcity of great moments.
Speaking of standouts, Madeline Botteri lights up the stage every time she sets foot upon it. She absolutely nails the show’s quintessential diva solo “Come to Your Senses” and shines in shared numbers such as “Therapy” and “Sugar.” Her considerable comedic chops also get put on display in the seamless switching between tick, tick’s many wild side characters. There exists between Botteri and her audience a sort of inherent, profound connection that is both charming and affecting. Hers is a performance not to miss.
As with any great production, the stars are supplemented by a strong supporting team. Musical Director Joel DeCandio leads an impressive rock quartet featuring Stefan Kempski on guitar, Brad Emmet on bass, and Raeshwan Green on drums. The musical accompaniment is crisp and knows exactly when to ramp up and scale back to suit the needs of the moment. DeCandio, previously seen at Signature and Studio, is rather fittingly moving to New York the day after tick, tick… closes. Losing him is a blow for DC theatre but his strong work with QuackenSteele is a terrific way to go out.
Ware’s direction is smart and focused. He knows exactly when to let the humor of a scene breathe and when to allow the audience to be tickled and surprised. Ware gets the very best out of a talented cast and always seems to put them in positions to succeed. I’m not alone in my belief that his future in Washington theatre is a bright one.
Kelly Crandall d’Amboise’s choreography is always on point while providing each number with an apt extra layer of storytelling. Scott Selman’s lighting design perfectly serves the show in the intimate Convergence space (which, by the way, is the exact sort of venue where tick, tick… BOOM! shines – the show just wouldn’t be the same in one of DC’s major theatre cathedrals). David G. Jung provides the show’s telltale ticks in his smooth sound design. Margaret Lewis calls a sharp show in her first turn as a stage manager.
Tick, tick… BOOM! is a triumphant first step for Laura Quackenbush and Lou Steele, the producing team behind QuackenSteele. Their debutante gown is a beautiful, heartfelt production of a musical that teaches audiences to confidently grab hold of their dreams and never let go. Let’s hope Quackenbush and Steele take Larson’s advice and that tick, tick… BOOM! is just the first of many wonderful productions for this promising new company.
Running Time: 90 minutes, without an intermission.