By Quinn Rigg
We live in a world of excessive intake and transient morality. We live in a society that champions heartless monetary success, shunning any ethical codes that it deems inconvenient—a world that is far too familiar to this nation, as indicated not only by history textbooks, but by the musical theatre canon.
The Bohemian frustrations with conformity expressed within the work of Jonathan Larson prove particularly relevant in a society that has not progressed from its manufactured idealism since the nineties.
Larson is very well known for his documentation of (and dissatisfaction with) the nineties, in that both of his major works (Tick, Tick… Boom! and Rent) specifically delineate and reflect upon the cultural woes and artistic prose of the period. Far more esoteric of the two would be Larson’s autobiographical “rock monologue” turned full-length musical by David Auburn: Tick, Tick… Boom!, which serves as a period piece of the early nineties, as well as a commentary on artistic stagnation and social rejection, wherein the self-referential lead, Jon, undergoes self-doubt and self-assessment as his best friend Michael and lover Susan support and challenge his direction in life. A synopsis of the musical may be read here.
The Cuckoo’s Theater Project’s production of Tick, Tick… Boom! directed by Donald Kolakowski does well to illuminate the pain of change and the fear of rejection, yet lacks the candid subtleties to make the anxiety and frustration presented therein believable. Aptly, this production is an explosion, of sorts, in that it is an unfocused and turbulent burst of energy. While it attempts to confront audiences with the fallacies of capitalism and material wants, it lacks tact in the manner of its confrontation; the representational set and small, unwieldy space are in near-constant conflict with the bodies on stage, and the direction fails to make clear, specific choices that support the anxiety, frustration and hope of this musical’s stakes in a believable manner.
In the intimate black box space of the Prop Thtr, little is hidden from sight, making subtlety all the more vital in the conveyance of desperate human desire. The space is very conducive to the fourth-wall breaking confrontational style of the musical’s narration—patrons walk into the space in eager anticipation to see stacks of milk crates surrounding a piano. There is great expectation of impermanent possibility in wondering how this distressed space will be used.
Unfortunately, the milk crates get more in the way than anything else, as their noisy clattering proves distracting during awkward transitions, wherein actors place the plastic boxes during songs, thusly interrupting the action of a given number; instead of being immersed within the frantic, defiant energy of this musical, the energy is dropped into a milk crate instead of the audience. What’s more, the crates hardly function for what they attempt to represent, given that the structures they create are often too short to organically sit upon, but large in enough to inhibit comfortable movement in the small space. Rather than assist the ensemble in creating a cohesive symphony of movement and music, the set provides a disruptive cacophony of distressed milk crate tables, beds and chairs — the set and the space are in constant conflict.
Adding to the lack of harmony, so to speak, is the frequent absence of sincerity and specificity in the direction and choreography. Asides to the audience lack proper distinction from absent lighting or staging shifts, presenting instead the active ostracization of Jon’s scene partners as the action of dialogue halts for unmotivated commentary. The asides themselves are not the problem—it is the lack of specificity of their focus that halts action, and a lack of understanding of motivation that restrains the objective of an aside from landing.
The continued lack of specificity in choreographic aspects further diminish the musical’s focus: choreographed movement to music is messy and lacking in polish or motivation. While energetic, and at times humorous, aspects of dance in this piece do no favors to the already-unfocused stakes of the musical: “No More” and “Sugar” do better to mask the lack of choreographic specificity in the context of humor and jest, (“No More” contains a particularly hilarious sequence of dated 80s dance moves as the lights flash vibrantly) but the absence of unified, specific movement still begets an unfinished quality to each number.
Most exemplary, the choreography of “Green Green Dress” is more clumsy and awkward than thrilling and passionate, as it fails to convey the exhilarating electricity of Jon’s and Susan’s physical intimacy—which is further diminished still by the clunky moving of milk crates in order to create a makeshift “bed.” Unfortunately, the most pressing problem inhibiting the energetic ambition of this choreography is the lack of space; or rather, the choreography is not conducive to the performance space.
Overall, the show has a problem with dramatic contrast and pacing. Despite the energetic performances and uptempo pop/rock score, the show seems to drag at times due to the heavily saturated dramatic intensity of the text’s interpretation, which, while fitting and compelling in certain moments, is not feasible as the sustained level for the entire show; the energy and stakes of therein often resign into heavy, inactive sulking, rather than brisk, active searching, solving, or discovering. Too often does the energy of the play devolve into a dreary pity party as opposed to a desperate search for self-discovery or reinvention.
That being said, the energy of this piece, when directed in a productive manner—humorous or otherwise—is invigorating; moreover, the spunk and pep of the performers does create a particular likability that makes the musical more accessible. Nic Eastlund’s portrayal of Jon juxtaposes an overstated presence with the audience and an understated presence with the ensemble that illuminates an interesting and ironic psychology of the character—the artist betrays and admits and explodes at the audience in a manner more intimate and intense than he could ever reveal to those that he holds most dear. Marc James introduces a lovable novelty to the career-driven Michael, adding a layer of depth that makes the character likable and relatable. Molly LeCaptin shines as the star talent of this production: her incredibly powerful voice demonstrates a strong understanding of the score—both in pitch and style—and the subtleties of her dynamics create compelling musical arcs which are heightened by her believable characterizations and candid responses. Unfortunately, other vocals in the production are not as accomplished.
The ensemble is supported well by a capable pit, led by Musical Director Jane Marshall. The hard rock score is played with visceral energy and professional polish, and the sound mixing does well to allow the band to fill the space without blowing ear drums.
In tackling the risk of Larson’s Tick, Tick, Boom! this production demonstrates an electric ambition to delineate and denounce the cultural woes of today through the lense of the 1990s, and a caring intention of fostering introspection through a story of artistic struggle. However, the poignancy of Larson’s work is lost through a lack of specificity and cohesion. A chaotic mass of milk crates sets a poor foundation upon which to build the action of the drama, and clumsy (albeit quick) transitions further segment the musical from itself. The Cuckoo’s Theater Project presents more of a chaotic “Boom!” to Larson’s musical, as opposed to a comprehensive and relevant analysis of our social and cultural problems. This production seems to have missed the measured, anticipatory desperation of the “Tick, Tick” that paces the show through compelling commentary and relatable anxieties.
The Cuckoo’s Theater Project presents “Tick, Tick… Boom!” at the Prop Thtr at 3502 N Elston Ave, Chicago, through December 16th. More information and tickets are available here.