June 27, 2018

Songwriter Chooses Between Aspirations, Relationships in “Tick, Tick … Boom!”; Princeton Summer Theater Gives Lively Performance of “Rent” Writer’s Musical

“TICK, TICK…BOOM!”: Performances are underway for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “Tick, Tick … Boom!.” Directed by Victoria Davidjohn, the musical runs through July 8 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater. Susan (Allison Spann, left), Michael (Chibueze Ihuoma, center), and Jon (Isaac Piecuch) sing “Louder Than Words,” the show’s closing number. (Photo by Sarah Golobish)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

“The sound you are hearing is not a technical problem,” quips Jon, the protagonist of Tick, Tick … Boom! “It is the sound of one man’s mounting anxiety. I am that man.” He reveals that he is “a ‘promising young composer.’ I should have kids of my own by now, a career, but … I’m trying to work, trying to enjoy what remains of my extremely late 20s, trying to ignore the tick tick booms.”

Princeton Summer Theater is presenting Tick, Tick … Boom! at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater. A press release for the production states that it “sets the stage for a summer of performances that center around self-discovery as seen through critical turning points in our characters’ lives.” The autobiographical musical by the late Jonathan Larson (1960-1996), best known as the composer and writer of the Broadway musical Rent, is an apt show with which to open this season.

Tick, Tick … Boom! was written — and performed by Larson, as a “rock monologue” titled Boho Days — in 1990. After the initial workshop at Second Stage Theatre, Larson revised it, and changed the title. After Larson’s death, playwright David Auburn was commissioned to rework the piece into a musical for three performers. This version opened off-Broadway at the Jane Street Theater in 2001, with Auburn credited as a script consultant.

In the opening number, “Thirty/Ninety,” Jon establishes that the show is set in 1990, and that he is about to turn 30. He confides to the audience that he is worried that he is taking too long to accomplish his goals. The number opens with Jon playing the opening chords on his keyboard, and the musicians imitating his notes before they take over the accompaniment. It is an effective opening.

A graduating senior from Princeton University, Isaac Piecuch brings a solid vocal technique and, appropriately, nervous energy to the role of Jon. He fidgets with his hands, and gives Larson’s wry text an artfully understated, self-deprecating delivery.

Jon’s girlfriend, Susan, is a dancer who teaches ballet to “wealthy and untalented children.” When they talk on the roof of Jon’s apartment building, Jon admires Susan in her “Green Green Dress.” Susan is portrayed by Allison Spann, who is majoring in music at Princeton. Spann is a sprightly dancer; she and Piecuch bring an animated sensuality to their initial duet.

The costumes by Keating Helfrich visually establish the characters. Jon’s loose-fitting jacket and T-shirt are a marked contrast to the suit and tie worn by Jon’s friend and former roommate, Michael. Unlike the two men, Susan is given a variety of outfits, including the lustrous green dress.

Susan is starting to dream of leaving New York, and is concerned that Jon’s lifestyle as an aspiring songwriter is incompatible with her wish to raise a family. Michael, a former actor who now is a well-paid research executive, wants to set up a job interview at his office for Jon. Jon agonizes between his creative aspirations, and his own wish for a more traditional, secure lifestyle, in “Johnny Can’t Decide.”

Like his onstage counterpart, and numerous aspiring musical theater writers, Larson admired the work of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. In turn, Sondheim mentored Larson, and wrote letters of recommendation for him. Knowledge of Sondheim’s musicals probably will enhance the audience’s enjoyment of “Johnny Can’t Decide” and the number that follows it.

Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park with George contains a song, “Lesson #8,” in which the protagonist sings about being at loose ends. Like George in Sondheim’s musical, Jon refers to himself in the third person. However, “Lesson #8” is a solo, while “Johnny Can’t Decide” is a trio for Jon, Susan, and Michael.

At the end of the song, Jon abruptly announces that he has to go to work. This is a cue for “Sunday,” a clever parody of the number that ends both acts of Sunday in the Park with George. In Sondheim’s musical, “Sunday” is a poetic description of Georges Seurat’s pointillistic painting of “blue, purple, yellow, red water” in his masterpiece A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.

Larson’s version, in which Jon describes his workplace as a “blue, silver chromium diner,” serves as an outlet for him to vent about his own job as a waiter at the Moondance Diner, where he worked for a decade. (Sondheim’s melody is largely unchanged.) Director Victoria Davidjohn, who is pursuing a BA in English literature with certificates in theater and music theater at Princeton, gives this showstopper a stylized bit of staging, in which the performers move in slow motion.

As with other moments in the show, Spann and Chibueze Ihuoma — who plays Michael — demonstrate the versatility required to fill numerous roles in addition to Susan and Michael. Here, they are two of Jon’s customers.

Although Larson’s “Sunday” is amusing, it might be parody for its own sake, and a bit out of place, if it were not thoroughly consistent with Jon’s character. Jon describes objects around him (including Susan’s dress) elsewhere in the show, and his own appreciation of Sondheim’s work will be important to the plot.

Michael gives Jon a tour of his new, luxurious apartment. In “No More,” Michael contrasts — through contrasting musical styles — the impoverished life he used to lead, with the cushy life he now enjoys. Piecuch and Ihuoma are particularly entertaining in this sequence, offering an enthusiastic delivery of rousing dance steps.

Ihuoma, who is pursuing his BFA in drama at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, vocally is at his best with his smooth phrasing of “Real Life,” a number in which Michael encourages Jon to consider the lifestyle Susan wishes.

Jon admits that he is nervous about an upcoming workshop of Superbia, his new musical. (Larson wrote a musical titled Superbia, inspired by Orwell’s 1984. That show never was fully produced, though it was performed at Playwrights Horizons, and received a Richard Rodgers Production Award. It was Auburn’s idea to make Superbia crucial to the plot of Tick, Tick … Boom!)

The relationship between Jon and Susan continues to be tense. In “Therapy,” they awkwardly attempt to express their feelings in a circuitous conversation. (“I feel bad, that you feel bad, about me feeling bad ….”) The growing rift culminates when Susan sees Karessa, the female lead in Superbia (also played by Spann), kiss Jon. Susan tells Jon that she has gotten a job in Massachusetts, and that it may be permanent.

Jon worries that the workshop of Superbia will be poorly attended. However, several theater professionals fill the room, including “Stephen S—.” With a powerful belting voice, Spann makes Karessa’s number, “Come To Your Senses,” the vocal tour de force it needs to be. However, she sings the entire number behind a microphone; the sequence could be enhanced if the staging afforded Spann a bit more movement.

Elsewhere, Davidjohn’s direction makes very effective use of the space. In this she is helped by a fittingly economical set, designed by Jeffrey Van Velsor and painted by Helen Schrayer. The extent to which Jon and Susan are growing apart is accentuated by having them occupy opposite ends of the stage, each flanked by half of a clock’s face. In keeping with the musical’s origins as a monologue — and visually representing the fact that Jon’s musical ambitions are a key source of the rift — the orchestra is center stage and in full view, giving the show the feel of a rock concert.

After the workshop, Jon receives congratulations but no offers to produce the show. Disappointed, he tells Michael that he plans to give up composing. In a sudden turnaround, Michael encourages Jon to persevere, admitting that he finds his own, steadier job, emotionally unrewarding.

In an ensuing argument, Michael reveals a devastating piece of news, which Jon attempts to absorb in “Why.” This is one of Larson’s most character-driven numbers, and vocally it is a standout moment for Piecuch. Similar to Michael’s change in attitude toward Jon’s ambitions, the relationship between Jon and Susan is given an unexpected development.

Audiences familiar with Rent will observe similar themes: an obsession with time, creative anxieties, and an autobiographical depiction of Larson’s impoverished, bohemian life in downtown Manhattan. Acerbic observations are made in the lyrics, which are set to music that is infused with a rock vocabulary.

However, while Rent — in keeping with its basis in La Boheme — examined a tight-knit community of characters, Tick, Tick … Boom! is focused on Jon’s dilemma. The other characters’ lives are explored to examine their effect on Jon’s emotional development.

Nearly two decades after the premiere of this iteration of the show, Tick, Tick … Boom! remains an amusing, if poignant, time capsule of a period in the life of its creator. It is an illuminating glimpse into the mindset of a composer who was not at all certain of the success with which his work eventually met. The show’s youthful energy and characters suit this cast, whose members perform well together.

“Tick, Tick … Boom!” will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through July 8. For information call (732) 997-0205 or visit  www.princetonsummertheater.org/ticktickboom.