tick, tick...Boom!

Anna Gravel, Brian McAloon (on piano) and Justin C. St. Louis. Photo credit:

March, 2015

tick…Ever feel like giving up on the dream and accepting a less fulfilling choice?

tick…Ever feel like you’ve been banging your head against the wall for so long that you have to let things go because your head hurts so much?

Boom!…Ever feel the fear of selling out and the anxiety of failing?

Jonathan Larson did in 1990 when he was facing his milestone 30th birthday. So the composer/playwright wrote and starred in a one-man autobiographical musical, a “rock monologue” he called Bohemia in which he adeptly and poignantly depicts a struggling creative artist who wonders how much longer he could sanely balance his passion and goals with the stumbling blocks of life—relationship, job, money, doubts, fears.

Thankfully he persevered. His next creation was the 90s rock musical called RENT.  Unfairly, Jonathan Larson died in 1996 at the age of 35, the night before RENT opened off-Broadway and began its wildly successful global run that showcased Larson’s award-winning brand of art-imitating life-imitating art talent.

After his untimely passing, Larson’s one-man show was re-configured into a three-actor chamber musical by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright David Auburn and re-named tick, tick…Boom!  “It is the sound of one man’s mounting anxiety. I … am that man.”

City Theater will be bringing RENT to life at the end of its current season this summer. But tick, tick…Boom! is a pre-requisite to seeing RENT. It is a rare and exclusive opportunity to experience a slice of American musical theater history and get to know the man who fatefully lived—and died—making his dream come true. It is a chance to get to know Jonathan Larson in his real-life role as the typical struggling artist next door.

Larson, noted for exploring social issues such as multiculturalism, addiction, and homophobia, was a unique wordsmith who died a prophet, never realizing the power of his own talent. “I write musicals with rock music…Is it good enough for Broadway, that magical street of dreams? Is it too good for Broadway, that shameless commercial whore? It’s that raging mix of envy and contempt that’s so … healthy.”

As much as Larson’s character was tormented with struggle, the music and lyrics he created for tick, tick…Boom! effortlessly and cleverly express every shade of emotion the man was processing from the light-hearted (“Sugar,” “Therapy,” and “Sunday,” the latter a tip of his hat to his idol Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George…shh…) to the deeper (“Real Life” and “Come To Your Senses”).

Producer and Director Linda Sturdivant, a fan of Larson’s work who insisted that tick, tick…Boom! and RENT be offered to Southern Maine musical theater fans in the same season, made some righteous casting choices.

Brian McAloon leads the cast as Jon and admirably weaves a wonderful non-stop 90-minute tapestry of monologues, songs, reflections, asides and inner-ramblings that easily wins the hearts of the audience.

Anna Gravel plays Jon’s girlfriend, Susan. Whatever is demanded of the role, Gravel delivers effectively and flawlessly—A Jill-of-all-trades, an actress with many masques, a powerhouse singer with many hits.

Justin C. St. Louis plays Michael, Jon’s roommate, an actor-turned-Wall Street executive, who gave up struggle for security, subways for BMWs. At first I wasn’t convinced of St. Louis’ integration with McAloon’s character but later realized there was a reason for this and that he may well have been closer to Larson’s own scripted truth of his best friend, so who was I to judge Larson? Post-lesson-learned, I liked St. Louis.

Gravel and St. Louis were also featured in a myriad of bit roles as McAloon recounted various tales of Larson’s life, adding levels of comic relief and production value to an already fast-moving show (90 minutes with no intermission).

Face it, this is a period piece from the 90s (“It’s 1990 for God’s sake. It is not an exciting period.”): Fairly generic sound with familiar dovetailing and looping background vocal patterns with a bass that thinks it’s a lead guitar and a lead guitar that thinks it’s a 32-piece orchestra…and, oh yes, the Rhodes piano.

Resident Music Director Kevin Smith rises to the occasion of commanding the 4-man pit and giving that 90s contemporary rock sound justice. “You can’t put rock onstage – real rock, not warmed-over easy-listening pop, not plastic imitation 50s bubblegum,” writes Larson. Smith’s musical integrity is consistent and noteworthy and his job is much more gratifying when directing stalwart pitsters Bill Manning on drums and Jimmy McGirr on bass, and relative newcomer Brian Callahan on guitar.

tick, tick…Boom! opens Friday, March 6 and runs two weekends through March 15, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 PM at Biddeford’s historic Opera House, 205 Main St., downtown Biddeford. Tickets are $20, available online at or by calling 282-0849.

Remember, before RENT, there was tick, tick…BOOM!


–Louis Philippe


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