Theater Review - There’s a Good Cast, But Not Much Boom

Quick show of hands: does anybody remember the 1989 high school slasher flick Cutting Class starring Brad Pitt? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Because the movie was a piece of shit.
There’s a funny thing that happens when somebody has a book or movie or song that becomes popular (in Brad Pitt’s case, that was Thelma & Louise in 1991). What usually comes next is that people try to “rediscover” that person’s earlier work, and all the crap that nobody liked before suddenly becomes hip and popular (Cutting Class did get a renewed following). As another example, Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code was a pretty good read, but his earlier work Deception Point is a waste of paper. Because let’s face it, there’s usually a reason these people didn’t become famous before. And while it can be fun to look at the earlier work from a historical perspective, or to follow the development of various themes throughout a career, the prefame stuff is usually not very fulfilling.
The same thing happens with plays. The cultural phenomenon that is Rent prompted writer/composer Johnathan Larson to dust off an earlier autobiographical musical about a composer who is turning 30 and facing the dilemma of whether or not to give up his dreams. The show, Tick, Tick…Boom!, is now being played in all the hip places (I noticed it playing in Los Angeles during a recent trip). The Unicorn theatre, which has an unsettling talent for finding all the hot properties in the theatre world, is right on top of this one as well.
Tick, Tick… Boom! is a short rock musical in the vein of Larson’s later hit Rent. It focuses on a musical theatre composer, Jon, who is terrified that he’ll turn 30 without a produced play. His roommate, a promising actor, has given up the acting gigs and is now making big money working for The Man. His girlfriend is a dancer, tired of poverty-level living and ready to move on with her life. Jon struggles with whether or not to listen to his loved ones and get a “real job” or remain true to his heart.
And that’s it. That’s the whole story. Nothing else much happens.
The show is not so much bad as it is, well, kind of pointless. It runs only 90 minutes, blisteringly short for a musical—when most of the story is sung, you can’t say much in 90 minutes. It doesn’t help that some of the songs are about such plot-halting subjects as green dresses, serving brunch, and an ode to sugar (seriously). The show flirts with themes that Larson explored to greater effect later in his career, but they feel incomplete here. Actually, the script plays less like a story in itself and more like a side look at another disaffected bohemian in the same tenement building as the Rent kids.
The cast at the Unicorn does its best to try to make the show seem relevant. John-Michael Zuerlein is charming as the main character, Jon. While his voice isn’t always quite up to the demanding vocals, he makes up for it with sheer charisma. Tim Scott did a very convincing job as Michael, the balding gay roommate with a new car and an old secret. And as for Sarah Crawford, can I just say I love Sarah Crawford? She commanded the stage with her energy and verve.
The band, which occupied the space above the actors, has the Johnathan Larson rock sound down cold. Conducted by Daniel Doss and featuring Julian Goff, John Lenati, and that sexy jack-of-all-trades Ry Kincaid, they work very well as an ensemble, giving just the right balance of rock and stage musical flavor.
The show will be popular with hard-core Johnathan Larson fans, as well as those looking for some background on the writer. The message of the show is, of course, don’t give up on your dreams. There are some touching moments, and some melodramatic ones. Unfortunately there are no new moments—we’ve seen it all before, and we’ve seen it better.

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