“It’s hard for people born after 1960 to be idealistic or original,” our protagonist pouts in “Tick Tick Boom,” a musical set in 1990. “We’ve seen what happens to ideals: they get assassinated, or corrupted, or co-opted.” Well, 1990 is now just as far from 1960 as it is from 2020, and Larson’s words still ring true.
Every so often, some young talent comes along and shakes up the Broadway scene. For one brief shining moment, the composer Jonathan Larson was one of them. As any theater kid will tell you, Larson died in 1996, mere hours before his play “RENT” entered previews. 25 years later, “RENT” remains the defining Broadway musical of the ‘90s. But before then, Larson was a starving artist in Alphabet City, spending his twenties oscillating between waiting tables at dead-end diners and writing musicals no one liked. It’s those experiences which make up the autobiographical “Tick Tick Boom,” as performed by the Brooklyn College Musical Theater Collective in Whitman Hall this past weekend.
Now, let’s get this out of the way: the largest problem with this production of “Tick Tick Boom” is that “Tick Tick Boom” is just not a good musical. I’m not even sure it’s a musical in its own right so much as it is a rough draft of “RENT.” From the 90’s NYC setting and overall sense of gen-X ennui, right down to little details like the awkward phone calls with nagging parents and agents. “RENT” is rightfully a classic, but it’s tough to deny the criticism that it reduces gentrification and the AIDS crisis to scene dressing on which disaffected hipsters can gyrate. “RENT” is able to duck this criticism with its sheer scope and emotional power; “Tick Tick Boom” has neither, and frequently reeks of narcissism on Larson’s part. Your goodwill towards the play itself is almost entirely dependent on your awareness of Larson’s later triumph and tragic life path.
Goodwill towards this production of “Tick Tick Boom,” however, is easily warranted. The minimal staging is effective; the choreography is top-notch; the five-person cast is quite good. The live quartet plays with gusto – although, I will say that the music occasionally overpowered the performers (an inevitability in a tiny space like the Whitman basement, admittedly).
Somewhat problematically, the weak link in the cast is arguably the leading man. I derive no joy from slamming Harrison Hernandez like this. He’s an undeniable talent; a hunky baritone with effortless charisma. Problem is, “hunky” and “effortless charisma” are not adjectives anyone would attach to Jon Larson, the spindly neurotic. More problematically, “baritone” isn’t the right adjective either,— when he struggles to hit the high notes during dramatic numbers like “Johnny Can’t Decide” and “Why” it’s becomes all the more notable. Hernandez isn’t bad in the role, per se, but his performance feels somewhat uncanny, like watching Alfred Drake play Evan Hansen. Hernandez is a classic leading man, but here he’s miscast as a misfit.
During a couple numbers, I couldn’t help but wonder if the play would be better if he’d swapped places with Antonyio Artis, who plays the serious, Gucci belt-wearing exec Michael. (In “RENT” terms, he’s both the proto-Collins and the proto-Benny.) Artis nails the dramatic moments, like when he admits he has (gasp) AIDS, but he’s also capable of great levity, especially during the “No More” number, which sees him and Hernandez doing some hilariously over-the-top dance moves in his fancy new apartment. (It’s hands down the highlight of the performance – props to choreographer Matthew Williams).
Rounding out the core cast is Francesca Manligoy as Jon’s girlfriend Susan, who doesn’t have much to do other than look vampy in a green velvet dress and break up with Jon for not moving to Cape Cod; despite her disappointingly thin characterization, Manligoy stands out as the best singer of the group. Isabella Marinucci and Leslie Joelle Avighna complete the ensemble, playing various random roles (diner patrons; marketing “professionals;” Jon’s parents) with lovable broadness.
Ultimately, despite my misgivings about the choice of play, there’s no denying the passion that went into “Tick Tick Boom” – the latest fine offering from the Musical Theater Collective. Given the professionalism of the play, it’s a bit surprising to realize they’ve only been around for about three years. I’m hoping that with time and renewed student interest, they’ll work out the snags and create bigger and better productions in the future.