Adam Byrd, Peighton Radlein, Brian Bowles and Katie Willis in tick, tick…BOOM! . Photo by Danny Alexander.
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Myranda Thomas
Musical Direction by Jessica Litwiniec Dorman
A review by Tory Parker
Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Tory Parker. All rights reserved.
By all accounts and evidence of his existence, Jonathan Larson was big. He was tall, lanky, with long long fingers always dancing along the piano or running through the curly puff of hair shooting out of the top of his head. His goals were even bigger. He didn’t just want to write a musical, he wanted to write a rock musical. Not just a rock musical, he wanted to write the rock musical. He wanted to write something that would shock the desensitized drones of his generation back to reality. He wanted to wake up a generation.
Larson’s most famous work, his magnum opus, is the Broadway phenomenon Rent. In so many ways, Rent did what he set out to do–it changed the artform in a way that hadn’t been done since his icon, Stephen Sondheim. And while Rent is larger than life, tackling major social and political issues of the time, featuring a massive set, a cast in the double digits, and a full rock band, tick, tick…BOOM! is its inverse.
The show is deeply personal–originally written as a rock monologue Larson performed alone, diving into his own struggle to create meaningful art and break into the New York theatre world without starving or freezing to death in his apartment. We see him struggle with what feels like dead-end or sell-out work, with wanting a different life than the comfortable one of his girlfriend’s imaginings, and with the worst possible news from his closest friend. This version is still about all of that, but the show wouldn’t be converted for multiple actors until 2001 – 05 years after the international explosion of Rent and his tragic, untimely death.
None of this is information you NEED in order to see and enjoy Time Slip Theatre’s production of tick, tick…BOOM! But I think knowing those things, as people who would have seen the 2001 off-Broadway production and now those who have seen the more biopic 2021 film version do, adds layers to the show that, at the time, Larson did not have the futuristic insight to provide.
Time Slip’s space in Butchertown is the perfect place for a show like this. Corie Caudill’s scenic design captures the feeling of that intimate, homegrown-but-professional rehearsal room/workshop space/small recital hall that would have seen Larson’s early work. The stage is small, made smaller with the (excellent) live band, but Lindsay Krupski’s thoroughly thoughtful lighting design and Thomas’ knife-sharp direction utilize every inch, especially in the musical numbers. The staging is intentional and smooth, mindful of the dramatic effects moving 2-4 feet up or downstage can make when your audience is so close.
As Jonathan Larson, Brian Bowles carries the massive implications, foreshadowings, red flags, and red herrings of the story and Larson’s own words with knowing and nuance – and that touch of chaotic mania that drives all geniuses. His performance is big and could run the risk of being too big for the space, but he is the gas in the tank as well as the driver, and the energy is well appreciated.
Adam Bryd and Katie Willis as Michael and Susan (respectively) both shine in the musical numbers, with stunning vocals and liveliness and focus that connected them like live wires to the audience. Their performances outside of their songs sometimes verged on being so subtle, they stood to get lost, even in a space so snug. Peighton Radlein, as a plethora of characters, brought a spike of energy and a gorgeous vocal. All three have shining moments throughout, switching from laugh-out-loud farce to heartbreaking earnestness and the bitterest sweetness.
In the early 1990s, it was tick, tick…BOOM! that attracted attention from producing legend Jeffrey Seller, who would later bring Rent to Broadway. It is a show about struggle and failure, and at that time, it was a show about the hard reality of those things, from a man still years out from his own greatest work. Superbia, the musical Larson wrote, around which the narrative of tick, tick…BOOM! revolves, never came to be. But the process of its “failure” led him on a new path. And it taught him the value of work, creation, and connection in his own life. We find by the end of tick, tick…BOOM!, that if Jonathan wants to wake up an entire generation, he has to start somewhere smaller. And he might have been a big man, but he was still smaller.
Featuring Brian Bowles, Adam Bryd, Peighton Radlein, and Katie Willis. With music from Jessica Litwiniec Dorman, Tommy Cook, John Anderson, and Benji Simmons.
September 23 – October 2, 2022
Time Slip Theatre
1501 Story Avenue
Louisville, KY 40206
Tory Parker is originally from West Virginia, graduated from Centre College, and now works in marketing at the Waterfront Botanical Gardens. In Louisville, she’s worked and performed with Claddagh Theatre Company, the Chamber Theatre, Bellarmine University, Wayward Actors Company, Derby City Playwrights, Company Outcast and director Emily Grimany. As a playwright, her original works appeared in the National Women’s Theatre Festival in their 2020 and 2021 Fringe Festivals.