BWW Reviews: With TICK, TICK BOOM, QuackenSteele Theatre Company Makes Great First Impression
The husband and wife producing team of Laura Quackenbush and Lou Steele is nothing if not ambitious. For QuackenSteele Theatre Company's inaugural production, the team certainly didn't take the easy path and stage yet another production of some big name musical that's been seen in the DC area many times before or a small play that offers a chance to gently test the waters. Instead, the duo chose to mount a lesser known and produced musical, albeit by someone musical theatre aficionados should know very well. That, of course, is Jonathan Larson's autobiographical musical, Tick, tick...BOOM!, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2001 after Jonathan's death and after Rent - the musical that put him on the map - became a phenomenon.
Tick, tick...BOOM! gives us a glimpse at the man that Jonathan was - the one that struggled to achieve his musical theatre goals in a city where there is no shortage of others trying to do the same thing while working in a diner and trying to make a relationship work. In this show, he's on the cusp of turning the dreaded age of 30 and is worried that he hasn't accomplished enough yet. There's a workshop of the musical he's been working on for years in the works (Superbia), but who knows if it will amount to anything. His relationship with his girlfriend Susan is on the rocks, and other friends like Michael are taking other paths in life. We hear about his struggles and the ones his friends faced at the time through his own music and words (David Auburn provided script consultation).
Jon ponders several things. Is there an alternative to seeking a dream that may be unattainable? What choices exist, if any? Which one is the best to make? Is success and happiness only defined by making a strong professional showing in New York? Is it possible to balance friendships and romantic relationships with the pursuit of musical theatre - not just any kind of musical theatre, but the kind that New York has never seen before?
Tick, tick...BOOM! grapples with these questions and offers a story that's relatable not just to artists like Jonathan striving to excel at their craft and all of the obstacles inherent in that, but anyone who's struggled with the idea of 'growing up' and what that means. While the story that's presented here is undeniably a New York story, one does not necessarily have to understand that life to appreciate the underlying theme and struggle of our protagonist.
If this intriguing choice of a musical wasn't enough, Lou Steele also stars in the show as budding musical theatre writer Jon - rarely leaving the stage - and gives what one might call a tour-de-force performance. He's joined by two other very strong musical theatre actors, Madeline Botteri and David Little, whom have appeared on many of our local stages and give equally strong performances as friends, love interests, and others in Jon's life. When a rocking band enters into the mix under the direction of Joel DeCandio, it's clear that QuackenSteele is here to make a strong impression and come out of the gate with guns blazing.
Under the direction of Walter Ware III, Steele, Botteri (primarily playing Susan - Jon's dancer love interest) and Little (primarily playing Michael - Jon's childhood friend who turned his back on acting and now has a fancy corporate job and a fancy car/apartment to go along with it) bring energy and commitment to the proceedings as they share the tale of love, searching, and perseverance. Even in the face of some potentially overcomplicated staging choices and lighting designs (Scott Selman) - particularly for a venue as small as the Lab at Convergence - they deliver performances that are authentically human, raw, real, and powerful. The comedic moments are just as strong as the dramatic ones. A strong chemistry between all three actors is enormously crucial to putting such an intimate and personal and emotionally touching show like this one over well. In contrast to another production of the show I saw in another city, the script is all the more powerful when the audience can not only appreciate the deep struggle each character is facing, but the bonds between them. So kudos to the director and cast members for bringing out those elements!
Although sound troubles plagued the opening night performance (to be fair, they might be somewhat unavoidable in a venue like this especially when the band is performing onstage behind the singers) and it was - at times - hard to hear some of the vocals over the band, the small ensemble of actor-singers delivered polished, professional, and emotionally resonant vocals. I've often said that I think the music in this show is far more melodically interesting and complex than what's found in Rent - and it's certainly more diverse - and these singers do justice to the material.
Whether it's the song that plays homage to Larson's idol Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George and reveals the horror for restaurant staff that is Sunday brunch in New York ("Sunday"); the rapid-fire, tongue-in-cheek "Therapy" that depicts a lovers squabble; the 11 o'clock number in Larson's musical Superbia ("Come to Your Senses"), or contemplative ballads ("Why, "Real Life") each number is delivered with precision and conviction. Standout vocal moments come in the form of Botteri's "Come to Your Senses" and Steele's "Why." Ensemble numbers like "Sunday" and my personal favorite, "Louder Than Words" offer glorious harmonies.
I can't wait to see what this company does next.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
Tick, tick...BOOM! plays at the Lab at Convergence - 1801 North Quaker Lane in Arlington, VA - through June 6, 2014. For tickets and more information, consult QuackenSteele Theatre Company's website.