Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM! explodes with a young playwright’s promise

By Matt Zakosek

Jon is a man with a dream. He wants to write musical theater. Actually, he does write musical theater; more specifically, he wants to see one of his shows produced. And if things go well with his latest workshop, that dream may become a reality. That ticking he hears is the sound of his youth slipping away—and that ominous boom in the distance is what happens if his dreams are squashed.

Sound familiar? Tick, tick…BOOM!’s Jon (winningly portrayed by Michael Ingersoll) is a transparent stand-in for the composer, Jonathan Larson. Just like the young Larson, Jon slaves away on a futuristic musical called Superbia. Larson, of course, went on to write Rent before his death at age 35, while his onstage surrogate is content to receive a call from his (and Larson’s) idol, Stephen Sondheim. It’s one of those rare instances where real life worked out better than fantasy.

The slight tick, tick…BOOM! would have been overlooked completely if not for Rent’s success. But this doesn’t mean it has to make for a disappointing night at the theater, and the Pegasus Players’ current incarnation has plenty to recommend it. The incredibly small cast—also including Quinton Guyton as Michael and Jess Godwin as Susan—plug valiantly through the weaker numbers, including a parody of Sondheim’s own Sunday in the Park with George that I guess you have to be a musical-theater geek to get.

Where Rent had great ideas about alienation and AIDS, tick, tick…BOOM! has songs called “Sugar” and “Green Green Dress,” which are about… you guessed it. The songs themselves are pleasant enough. But when other numbers—like “30/90,” by far the strongest song in the show—attempt to capture a generation in the same way as Rent’s “What You Own,” the contrast is jarring. Part of the problem is the book (supervised by U of C alumnus and Proof playwright David Auburn), which asks us to care deeply about Ingersoll’s sometimes cloying songwriter.

But these problems lie with the source material, not the Pegasus Players’ production. All three cast members are solid performers and transition effortlessly between their main roles and smaller characters—in fact, maybe a bit too effortlessly. The fact that Jess Godwin can switch so seamlessly between Jon’s girlfriend Susan and opportunistic actress Karessa belies Larson’s difficulty with writing female characters. Although Jon is the main character, it’s disconcerting to hear him narrate Susan’s inner thoughts—as if the character is so vacuous she cannot be trusted with her own emotions.

Michael is another under-realized character, serving mainly as a warning to Jon about the perils of selling out. But Guyton’s strong voice and restrained emoting more than make up for any weaknesses in character development. In a surprising development, the character is revealed to be homosexual. I say “surprising” only because in most shows, that fact would have been trotted out for the sake of sensationalism or earnest political correctness in one of the very first scenes. Tick, tick…BOOM! raises the issue organically—arguably more organically than Rent, which occasionally feels diagrammatic in its attempts at inclusiveness.

The cast is best when interacting with each other—when Jon and Susan let their voices (and neuroses) overlap in “Therapy,” or when Jon and Karessa share an inspired bit of physical comedy in “Sugar” (which is otherwise as unfulfilling as its subject). Just as the actors slip into various roles, so are the props used for several purposes—the door to Jon’s apartment is turned on its side, for instance, and used as a table in a business meeting. So stripped-down is the production that when a prop makes an appearance as what it is actually supposed to represent—Jon’s four Hostess Twinkies, for example—it’s a quirky delight.

The Pegasus Players deliver a professional-grade show in a shockingly modest space. (In fact, audience members must first pass through a gymnasium to find the theater.) The band is tight, and the set is amazing, with its wheels-and-cogs theme perfectly reflecting the anxiety of turning 30 in the year 1990. Godwin was plagued with mic problems during her solo number, “Why,” but I suspect that will be fixed as the run continues. More could have been done with the light bulbs peppering the top of the stage, but perhaps it was a conscious decision to use them sparingly. When they are illuminated—during Michael’s ode to his new house, “No More”—the effect is breathtaking.

Tick, tick…BOOM! is a must-see for every Rent fan, and even those who find the Pulitzer Prize–winner too didactic or overblown may appreciate the more modest aims of this earlier show by Larson. At a sprightly 90 minutes, it doesn’t get the chance to wear out its welcome. As an enjoyable but eminently forgettable night at the theater, tick, tick…BOOM! is a good choice for the Pegasus Players—but as a tribute to a talented young songwriter who was tragically cut down in his prime, it’s a great one.