Chicago Theatre Review
tick, tick…BOOM! takes off after a slow start
By Kyle Babcock
In Rent, Jonathan Larson asked, “How do you measure a year in a life?” The answer for him at that time of his life was love – the love you have for others and the love they share for you – sage, albeit hard-to-implement, advice for all. However, earlier in his life, in his autobiographical, tick, tick…BOOM!, he delves into measuring 30 years in a life as a juxtaposition between the American stereotype of success: a family, a good job, Gucci belts, a BMW, and a “DE-luxe apartment in the sky-eye-eye” and a personal life filled with your dreams and passions that may not parlay into the American stereotype.
Fortunately, Larson chose to shun the stereotype, and despite external pressures, live for his dreams that resulted in a Pulitzer and two Tony awards as recognition for Rent. Conversely, the first thirty minutes of Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of tick, tick…BOOM! prove why he received the accolades for Rent and not this work. This is not a reflection of the cast and crew of Porchlight, who do an admirable job, but a reflection of the mediocre material that lacks the ingenuity and grittiness of Rent.
The story revolves around Jon (Adrian Aguilar), a struggling composer in 1990 (I mentioned it was autobiographical, right?) who is just days away from his 30th birthday – the end of youth according to him. Jon hears a perpetual ticking, which he acknowledges to be anxiety and the expectations of adulthood. Next, Jon’s two barometers for measuring his life are his girlfriend, Susan (Jenny Guse), and his best friend, Michael (Bear Bellinger). Both of whom have moved to New York to follow their dreams as a dancer and actor, respectively. Michael surrendered his acting career for one in Marketing, while Susan is on the cusp of trading in her dancer dream for a new dream of a full-time teaching job in Upstate New York and building a family.
The first thirty minutes are filled with clichés and the insipid “Green Green Dress” (but not a real green dress, that’s cruel*), where Susan seduces Jon, and then asks him to move Upstate with her in the forgettable “Johnny Can’t Decide.” If not for the energetic performances of the three actors and the intriguing video set, this first thirty minutes would have been unbearable. Then, to put it in today’s lexicon, wait for it (tick)…wait for it (tick)…the production took off (BOOM!).
At this point, I don’t know if the material improved or if the performances began to outshine the material. The final sixty minutes were thoroughly enjoyable with Jon and Susan perfectly executing the politest phone disagreement in “Therapy”, Karessa’s (also played by Guse) show-stopping performance in “Come to Your Senses”, and Jon’s cathartic realization to be happy he must continue his composer dream in “Why”. The latest was set during a rainstorm in Central Park, and I would be remiss to not recognize Mother Nature for the eerie assist during this production as hail rained down on the metal roof of the theater. I would also be remiss in not recognizing Aguilar for a brief, but charming, moment of acknowledging Mother Nature’s participation with an upward look and a slight smile.
The performances are outstanding with Aguilar showing promise for larger stages, if he chooses. Guse is elegant as Susan and enchanting as Karessa, while Bellinger deftly morphs into his many characters and provides a few laughs as Jon’s agent, Rosa.
The set design is simple but effective. Ann Davis creates a world that easily converted into various settings: a New York flat, a Madison Avenue ad agency, or Belvedere Castle in Central Park. The video montage was interesting; however, for the audience on the sides, some images were blocked by the sets, including the final scene, which left me wondering what I may have missed.
I recommend tick, tick…BOOM! primarily for the performances; it may be one of the few times you may see Adrian Aguilar in Chicago. It is playing at Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont until June 10.
* The not a real green dress is cruel reference is to a Barenaked Ladies’ “If I had a $1,000,000, which was popular in the early ‘90s – coincidence?