Reviewed by Lucy Ross
Theatre nerds of the 1990s will no doubt have heard of Jonathon Larsen and his iconic rock musical, Rent.
He was the first to open the door for musicals to have a more modern musical twist and address important issues people struggle with in the current day. At the time, writing a piece of theatre about the AIDS epidemic set to rock music was a big risk. Safe to say, this risk certainly paid off. Tragically, Larsen never got to see the success he became. He died suddenly at age 35, of an aortic dissection on the day of the first public performance of Rent. He finally found commercial success, but he never knew. And we never got to see what future works he may have written.
All we can do is look back, and this we do with Tick, Tick…Boom.
This is his origin story.
This cabaret-style piece was written before Rent, in response to his hurt following the flop of his sci-fi musical Superbia.
It was not created to be on a Broadway stage with all the bells and whistles – it’s an honest and raw depiction of Jonathon’s life and the life of so many artists in New York City at the time.
Most of the content of this show is fairly niche.
If you are unfamiliar with the work of the great Stephen Sondheim (particularly Sunday In The Park With George), it would be a good idea for you to fully immerse yourself before coming to see the show. A base knowledge of Sondheim’s writing and reputation and the musical theatre industry in general is essential to understand many jokes and references.
The set design, by Christina Smith, is simple yet incredibly effective. Two towers of red brick give a distinctly urban feel and bring the action in tighter to make the performance feel more intimate. Additionally, it’s a clever reference to the fact that Jonathon often says he feels he is “banging his head against a brick wall” pursuing his writing career. There are also multiple metal pieces that are transformed into chairs, tables, rooftops, and, eventually revealed to be, a piano. It was simple yet incredibly intelligent and added so much to the storytelling of this production.
There are only five actors in this performance, and they all barely left the stage. This feat requires extraordinary endurance and concentration.
Particularly for Hugh Sheridan, who played the man himself, Jonathan Larsen. They portrayed the role beautifully, with charm and nuance, and truly captured the essence of a struggling New York artist. It was required of them to break the fourth wall and create a relationship with the audience for the entire show. It felt relaxed and playful like we were simply a group of Larsen’s friends.
Finn Alexander, as Michael, is a truly well-rounded and versatile theatre performer. His depiction of Michael was honest, raw, and delightful – he could make you cry with sadness and laughter all within the same short scene. He also played several other characters throughout the show, and he pulled them all off with incredible detail and authenticity. Finn Alexander is a rising star we all need to watch.
However, perfection took human form with Elenoa Rokobaro in the role of Susan. Her energy and presence were so strong in every single scene - she absolutely stole the show. Additionally, her vocal ability is absolutely exquisite. Her rendition of “Come To Your Senses” brought the house down and witnessing it is certainly worth the price of a ticket alone. Tick, Tick…Boom is not the usual light-hearted story we are used to seeing on commercial musical theatre stages. But don’t let this deter you.
As much as theatre can be an escape for many of us, it’s also meant to be provocative and ask big questions. It’s supposed to leave you deep in thought and inspire interesting conversation. Normally musicals like this are saved for black box theatres down hidden alleyways – it is really refreshing to see something edgy and different on a Melbourne mainstage.
Hopefully, the success of this production will inspire other companies to take risks on lesser-known projects to bring more diversity to the arts in this country.
“Actions speak louder than words.”