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Rite of Passage

Stage 1 bursts onto the local scene with “Tick, Tick … Boom!”

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It's advantageous for actors to appear younger than they are. Someone who looks 16 but has the talent and experience of a 26-year-old can be a director's dream. Even so, a youthful look can trap actors in young roles when they're clearly ready to play grown-ups.

One of the many terrific aspects of Stage 1 Theatre's inaugural production, the rocking musical “Tick, Tick … Boom!” is the emergence of two of its stars from the youth ghetto.

In his winning portrayal of struggling playwright Jon, Brett Ambler certainly mines his boyish charm for many laughs. But this is a character facing his 30th birthday with fear and frustration — hence the ticking sound he keeps hearing in his head. Thanks in no small part to the guidance of wunderkind director Chase Kniffen, Ambler embodies Jon's internal struggles with a mature confidence.

Even more dramatic is Audra Honaker's turn as Jon's girlfriend, Susan, a knockout blonde nearly busting out of her tight black dress (courtesy of costume designer Sarah Grady). Could this be the same actress who played a pre-adolescent Little Sally in last year's “Urinetown”? And Honaker shifts effortlessly into several other roles — sometimes with dizzying speed.

These two are joined by an outstanding Durron M. Tyre as Jon's roommate, who's traded the artist's life for a fast-track job in marketing. Together they form a power trio that does dazzling work with songs that pop musically, even when their subjects are a bit pedestrian (“Green Green Dress”). Musical director Sandy Dacus works vocal magic with her cast, accompanied by a peppy four-piece band.

The show adheres to a traditional follow-your-dreams trajectory. It has the added poignancy, however, of being adapted from an autobiographical work by Jonathan Larson, who died tragically the day before his musical bonanza “Rent” premiered off-Broadway. Larson's songs for this earlier work are less anthemic but more clever, particularly the hilarious “Therapy” and the rousing “Sugar,” which celebrates Larson's embarrassing weakness for Twinkies.
Kniffen keeps his cast moving around a smallish stage nicely outfitted by set designer Mercedes Schaum. The fire escape, complete with ladder, is particularly evocative. Lighting designer Kenny Mullens makes good use of some slick, rotating lights to make the production glow. Somewhat astounding is how Kniffen, also Stage 1's artistic director, has created a top-notch new performance space from scratch — something it takes most companies years to accomplish. With its first production, Stage 1 has hit the ground running. S

“Tick, Tick … Boom!” is showing at Stage 1 Theatre, 9130 Dickey Drive, adjacent to Shuffles Dance Studio off Route 301 in Mechanicsville, through Nov. 22. For information go to www.stage1va.org or call 427-7548.

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