Some people anxious about milestone birthdays drown their emotions with pints of Guinness or Ben & Jerry’s. Composer Jonathan Larson channeled his anxiety into a charming, entertaining, and ultimately moving musical called “tick, tick…Boom!”
Swift Creek Mill Theatre just opened its fall season with a rousing and revelatory production of the autobiographical show, featuring a break-out performance by Caleb Wade as Jon. The preview performance I saw took a few scenes to get warmed up but, once it hits its stride, the production carries the audience careening along a satisfying emotional rollercoaster punctuated by songs that are alternately comic and compelling.
Larson ultimately became famous for creating the worldwide smash musical, “Rent,” but tragically, he died the day before that show opened on Broadway. While “tick, tick” feels mildly haunted by Larson’s untimely passing, Wade and his castmates chase that specter away whenever they’re singing.
Set six years before “Rent” opened, the “tick, tick” of the show’s title refers to the sound Jon hears in his head as he considers his imminent 30th birthday. That landmark looms amidst a flurry of life events. His show, “Superbia,” is facing its first workshop performance; his best friend Michael (Malcolm Holmes) is moving out of the apartment they share thanks to a burgeoning career in marketing; and his girlfriend, Susan (Rachel Rose Gilmour, alternating with Mikaela Craft), is pressuring him about making a bigger commitment.
As he watches others his age moving on and up, Jon worries that his composing career will never take flight. By the time his birthday arrives at the end of the show, shifting relationships and surprising revelations set him more solidly on a path forward.
A show this focused on a navel-gazing artist requires a winning performer to hold an audience’s attention and director Jan Powell makes a canny choice in casting Wade. Boyishly handsome and effortlessly likable, Wade has kicked around the local theater scene for years but has never had to carry a sprawling show like this one solely on his own.
- Louise Keeton
- Caleb Wade, "boyishly handsome and effortlessly likable," gives a winning performance.
While lacking a blockbuster voice, his singing is more than solid, particularly when it soars into higher ranges. Most importantly, he captures the urgency and regret of someone growing older without ever getting maudlin or mopey.
He also shares palpable chemistry with both Gilmour and Holmes who, in addition to playing Michael and Susan, portray all of the subsidiary characters in the show, from Jon’s dad to his negligent agent.
When the cast sings together for the first time in “Johnny Can’t Decide,” the production really comes into its own. Backed by a sterling band led by musical director Sandy Dacus and making the most of Larson’s talent with melodic storytelling, the three voices rise and intertwine in a truly electric mix.
Both Holmes and Gilmour make the most of their moments in the spotlight. As Michael launches into the plaintive “Real Life,” the warmth and poignancy of Holmes' voice propels the song forward. And Gilmour brings all the bracing power of her instrument to bear in a show-stopping “Come to Your Senses.”
Powell enhances many scenes with directorial flourishes, from small comic moments like Jon’s head briefly obscured behind a ceiling beam in “Sunday” to climactic scenes like Jon’s near-hysterical wander through Central Park near the show’s end. She’s assisted by playful choreography provided by Kayla Xavier. The dance moves help spur laughs in numbers like the tribute to Twinkies, “Sugar,” while adding romantic sizzle to the Jon and Susan duet, “Green Dress.”
Perhaps most revelatory to previous patrons of the Mill is the production’s scenic design by W. Reed West III that clears away all of the usual flats and set structures, even stripping off the backstage drywall. This leaves both the brick of the historic building and the production’s band exposed, giving the show an effective urban warehouse atmosphere.
Those unfamiliar with the show might wonder whether it’s worth the ramble down I-95 to see. Rest assured, with a surprising star turn at its center and a crack creative team on board, “tick, tick…Boom!” might just explode your expectations.
“Tick, tick…Boom!” is playing at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Route 1 in South Chesterfield, through Sept. 30. Tickets and information available at https://www.swiftcreekmill.com/.