July 7, 2006



Not quite a ‘Boom’ for these times
By David Ollington

(l to r) Sarah Crawford (as Susan), John-Michael Zuerlein (as Jon) and Tim Scott (as Michael) in Unicorn Theatre’s production of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick…Boom! (photo by Cynthia Levin and courtesy of Unicorn Theatre)

Before he created the long-running Broadway hit Rent, composer/lyricist Jonathan Larson wrote a smaller, chamber-sized musical Tick, Tick…Boom! He originally created it as a one-man show and titled it “30/90;” the plot revolves around his turning 30 in 1990.

The world of the theatre lost a great mind with Larson’s untimely death of an aortic aneurysm in 1996, sadly before he saw Rent open on Broadway. This earlier piece, Tick ,Tick…Boom! was mounted in 2001, reworked for three performers rather than one. Cynthia Levin directed the Unicorn Theatre’s rendition of the show (in association with Theater League), running currently until July 16.

MC Escher once drew a picture of his hand drawing his own hand. The Broadway musical A Chorus Line opened in 1974 and depicted an ensemble of singer/dancers singing and dancing about their existence. Tick, Tick…Boom! holds up a similar self-reflective mirror, and we witness 90 minutes of a musical theatre composer Jon (played by John-Michael Zuerlein) belting out raucous melodies about the life of a struggling theatrical creator.

Jon will soon turn 30 and faces several events in his life that makes the decade-mark more difficult for him. His girlfriend Susan (Sarah Crawford) wants dearly to leave New York for New England, which would put a halt to his career pursuits. A good friend of his Michael (Tim Scott), an actor turned successful marketing director, moves out of his low-end apartment to (and they quote “The Jefferson’s” theme song here) the East Side. Tim to Jon later reveals, “I’m sick and I’m not getting better.” Jon’s focuses his psyche primarily on an upcoming workshop sing-through of a musical he’s written, all the while returning to the restaurant where he waits tables.

The title of the show reflects a sound Jon claims to often hear (and which we share thanks to sound designer Genevieve-Marie C. Nocolas), a ticking clock on a time bomb, set to eventually go off, as if turning 30 accompanies an explosion. Larson’s premature death intensifies the ominous nature of the image.

The show presents an odd world. Here people always wear microphones that snake around their head and hover near the mouth. Every incident requires people to belt out piercing rock songs at each other, whether they discuss a new East Side apartment or argue about where to live.

Jon idolizes Stephen Sondheim. He so reveres the man, that he cannot utter his name. He says “Stephen” and mouths “Sondheim” while the percussionist tinkles soft bells, like the tiny fairy in Peter Pan.

Larson makes clear the need for a hard rock aesthetic in musical theatre. “Broadway is about 60 years behind anything you’ll hear on the radio,” Jon announces, and the music in the show supports this stance. Under the direction of Anthony Edwards, Daniel Doss on keyboards, Julian Goff on percussion, Ry Kincaid on bass, and John Lenati on guitar provide sneeringly contemporary rock sounds continuously from the pre-show until curtain.

At Michael’s urging, Jon attends a marketing meeting with him, and the band joins in the office meeting room brainstorming, leaving their instruments quiet to deliver ideas about how to name a non-nutritive fat substitute.

Most scenes of spoken dialogue last only a scant number of lines, serving as rather incomplete introductions to the long-winded heavy metal songs. The repeated pace grows tiresome.

A couple of sequences take a refreshing turn. A call-waiting scene in which Jon receives a surprising call from his agent and then an interrupting call from his father moves along with original humor.

Though Jon the character idolizes Stephen Sondheim, Jonathan Larson the librettist chose to satirize Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George during a scene at the restaurant where Jon waits tables. In Sondheim’s work, the painter George Seurat composes his famous painting by arranging set pieces and actors. In Tick, Tick…Boom, Jon the waiter composes the guests around him. Cups of coffee even fly down on wires, as does a plate of brunch food.

Set designer Gary Mosby put an amusement park of a set on the stage. Every corner holds a surprise, waiting for an actor to unroll it or transform it into something else. Sliding doors create offstage realities and serve for entrances of new characters (Crawford and Scott play multiple roles). A bed rolls out from under a stairway. A table, usually center stage, rests on wheels so the actors can ride it about. On the left side of the upstage wall hangs a set of moveable mini-blinds.

Local director Steven Eubanks served as a choreographer. He holds multiple, local, directorial credits and has proven his skill. This show, however, required no choreographer. His contributions consisted of small, contained steps. Actors drive Tick, Tick…Boom! Larson included no extended dance sequences or even rhythmic production numbers that might warrant a dance maker. Levin could have provided all the necessary choreography herself.

Larson wrote Tick, Tick…Boom! almost 20 years ago. Times change. A narcissistic story of a frustrated theatre composer may have fit in with the world of the previous Bush administration. With more fantasy shows on Broadway such as Wicked, perhaps our tastes turn currently more towards escapism and delight rather than angst and frustration.

Tick Tick…Boom! runs until Sat., July 16. Call 816-531-PLAY ext 10 or visit or

David Ollington can be contacted at


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