Review by Lisa Lanzi
TICK, TICK… BOOM! is not an easy show to watch, or to perform. With its lighting fast New York banter, a huge serve of fictional artistic anxiety, characters with complicated ‘baggage’, and very good, complex songs and harmonies that are (mostly) not memorable in that ‘Broadway earworm’ sense. It is a wild ride that was captured well in the 2021 filmed version where cutaway dialogue-driven scenes within songs like “Therapy” added to the drama. Larson was a composer ahead of his time, aiming to shift music theatre so that it embraced contemporary characters and themes. His music, lyrics and harmonies are demanding and meaningful, not only in a textual context but in the way he cleverly designs the melodies, rhythms and phrasing.
This semi-autobiographical musical drama is based on the life of Jonathan Larson, the composer and creative best known for RENT. Larson passed away suddenly at the age of 35 the night before RENT previews were to open at the Off-Broadway New York Theater Workshop in 1996. The stage action in Tick, Tick… Boom! takes place close to and upon the character’s 30th birthday in 1990. In that era New York City was a grubby, angry, conflicted place and hellishly competitive for artists of all kinds. The themes focus on hope, aspiration, following your life’s purpose, and finding resilience, despite every setback. It also touches on poverty, disappointment, HIV Aids, and anxiety about time and success passing you by.
The excellent and elegantly simple staging from designer Matt Ralph with elevated sections and spare, impressionistic vistas is lit well for the most part. Unfortunately there were times when the performers shifted into gloom on the set, where either a light should have been pointing, or perhaps a cue was mistimed. An atmospheric, echoing ticking sound greeted the audience upon entry into the cavernous Queen’s Theatre and Musical Director Kellie-Anne Kimber has done a superb job with the music throughout. With Kimber on keys, the assembled on stage musicians worked the score beautifully: Jason Ellbourn (guitar), Matthew Rumley (bass) and Jack Barton (drums) all shone. The sound design was mostly on point although in a few places, the vocals were too quiet in the mix - and I did ponder whether the foldback was adequate for the performers’ needs but as I wasn’t on stage, I can’t judge accurately, although I felt they straining to hear now and then.
Three performers portrayed the lead roles while two of them also took on minor cameos with just a hint of costume change or use of a prop. Benjamin Maio Mackay took the lead role of Jon and is a decent actor using a satisfactory American accent and I think possesses the potential to offer a good, resonant vocal quality in certain ranges. What let the characterisation down was Mackay’s singing. At times he almost nailed a song but at others his pitch was wobbly or flat, or the harmonies not quite melding; perhaps some songs were rehearsed more thoroughly than others? It was also concerning that Mackay’s entire physicality seemed to now and then limit his vocal acuity and diction (both spoken and sung) and I’m not sure if this was a character choice, or the performer’s embodied habits. Though odd neck angles and a slouch suited the anxiety-ridden character of Jon, these postures limited vocal range and power and made the text and lyrics sometimes difficult to interpret.
As Michael, Jon’s close friend, Liam Edwards acquits himself well vocally and made some strong, effective character choices. His spoken text has great clarity and his songs were competently delivered, his voice standing out in duets with Mackay. It is Tate Simpson who does shine with her obviously trained voice and a certain finesse in her physicality and acting. Playing Susan, the love interest, Simpson is confident and works with poise opposite Mackay’s Jon. Her outstanding moment as Karessa singing the song “Come To Your Senses” is a definite highlight.
Choreography from Nina Richards is inventive and astute, given the varying abilities and the challenging set. The movement adds dimension to some songs with the use of levels and props, poses, and simple dance steps. As I said above, this is a difficult work to bring to the stage; particularly for a small independent company operating on little or no funding which will always have big impacts on energy, time, and sometimes quality. The Lot Theatre is to be congratulated for attempting Tick, Tick… Boom! and for gathering a dedicated ensemble of performers and musicians. In this case, Benjamin Maio Mackay has also ambitiously taken on the director’s role and although his ideas are solid, it must have taken a huge toll on the actor, and possibly detracted from the time he had to perfect, and reflect upon, his own performance. The huge amount of work needed to bring any production to the stage should be shared but sadly financial and time pressure does not always allow. Passion, respect and care are not always enough to shape a successful production, and perhaps the group might attempt another staging in future.