You can tell that director Bo Frazier’s passion has been poured into their interpretation of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick…Boom!, and that this vision is deeply personal.
From the reaction of the cast to the opening night, extended standing ovation, the journey of bringing this BoHo Theatre production to life at Edge Theater in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood has been deeply personal to them as well.
Indeed, it is a triumph. All should be applauded for this breathtaking rendition of Jonathan Larson’s musical story reimagined in an all trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) production.
If the idea of an all trans and gender non-conforming cast causes you to bristle at first, I beg you to keep an open mind. You don’t have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to appreciate the splendor of how Frazier’s nonbinary vision melds seamlessly with Larson’s distinctive music and characters.
Larson is most famous as the writer and composer of the Broadway mega-hit RENT that revolutionized the Great White Way with its melding of rock and musical theater. Like Frazier’s direction of Tick, Tick…Boom!, there is a passion to Larson’s composition style.
RENT was Larson’s first production to make it to prominence. Sadly, he passed away before that happened – passing away on the day the show was to open Off- Broadway.
RENT went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical. Yet, with Larson having passed, there was no chance of a follow-up.
Instead, producer Victoria Leacock, a college friend of Larson, asked Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Auburn to reconfigure a prior solo project of Larson’s into a three-person musical. Auburn had previously achieved fame for the Broadway play Proof. Stephen Oremus was brought in to do musical direction, vocal arrangements, and orchestrations.
The result was Tick, Tick..Boom! – a semi-autobiographical account of Larson’s time leading up to the workshop of his first musical entitled Suburbia. Set in 1990, composer Jonathan is about to turn 30, and he hasn’t made much headway in his career as a composer and his relationship with his girlfriend Susan is at a crossroads.
While Jonathan still works as a waiter to support his unfilled ambitions as a composer, his best friend Michael has sold out to the corporate marketing world – sacrificing his artistic soul for a BMW and high-priced apartment with a view.
The production had its Off-Broadway premier in 2001 featuring Raul Esparza as Jon, Amy Spanger as Susan, and Jerry Dixon as Michael. Neil Patrick Harris played the role of Jonathan in the London premier in 2005. Lin-Manuel Miranda played the central role in 2014 Encores! Off-Center Revival. Miranda also directed a 2021 film adaptation starring Andrew Garfield.
The BoHo Theatre production features Alec Phan (he/they) as Jonathan, Luke Halpern (they/he/she) as Susan, and Crystal Claros (they/he/she) as Michael. As that the understudies for the three roles are Lizzie Mowry (they/them) for Jonathan, Nathe Rowbotham (they/them) for Susan, and Larry D. Trice II (they/them) for Michael, there is a certain degree of gender fluidity to the direction.
In director Bo Frazier’s conception, the characters of Susan and Michael are presented in a non-binary, or genderqueer way. This world, created by Bo and the creative team, shows a New York City in the 90s that openly accepts gender fluid people even if that wasn’t the case historically. But that’s part of BoHo’s inclusive vision – to imagine a world where that could have been possible, and hopefully will become more and more so.
In the central role of Jonathan, Phan is a delight. He captures the energy of Larson without attempting an imitation. His Jonathan is driven, yet hesitant. He is ambitious, yet often self-defeating. He is torn many directions and Phan communicates these tensions, frustrations, joys, and elations with panache. The fact that Phan can play not only piano, but guitar as well is also impressive.
Halpern is absolutely thrilling as Susan. I had never imagined the role this way, but damn if Halpern didn’t make it their own. Halpern’s Susan is a beautiful creature. I am so thankful that BoHo Theatre exists under the leadership of new artistic director Elizabeth Swanson to give a performer like Halpern the unconventional opportunity to play this role.
Claros also gives a unique interpretation of their role, and again it’s a winner. Claros’ Michael is jovial and playful, with just the right amount of cool and collected. But Claros definitely shows how Michael can switch into a full-on young professional persona at the office. Claros displayed tear-jerking emotion as Michael reveals a dark secret near the end of the show – a stellar performance to be sure.
One of the highlights of the night is the hysterical duet “Therapy” between Jon and Susan in which they argue about the source of their arguments while rehashing the verbiage of their therapist to no avail. For those who have enjoyed the piece on the Off-Broadway cast recording or in the film adaptation, the interplay between Phan and Halpern take the song to even greater comedic heights.
“No More”, a ruckus anthem by Michael and Jon about the benefits of the latter’s newfound wealth, is not normally one of my favorite numbers in the show. But the rendition by Claros and Phan is very playful and enjoyable – making it a standout in this production that already has to be heralded for top-to-bottom musical direction by Harper Abigail Caruso.
“Come to Your Senses” has always been my favorite song from Tick, Tick..Boom! ever since first hearing it performed by Spanger on the Off-Broadway cast recording. Halpern’s rendition of this emotionally charged ballad was inspired and touched every heart in the audience. If there is such a thing as an afterlife, then I’m certain Halpern’s performance touched Jonathan Larson’s spirit as well.
It would be impossible to conclude a summary of the productions’ best numbers without putting a spotlight on the way Phan throws themself with fearless abandon into the pivotal number “Why” near the close of the show. In this number, Jonathan faces his fears and literally begins his pursuit of greatness as a composer. Phan again shows off their mastery of the ivories, but it is their emotional delivery that takes the performance to another level.
While each of the cast members shines in their solo moments, it is their exquisite harmonies that make this musical truly transformative. And, the musical impact would not be complete without an outstanding onstage band under the direction of Caruso. The band features Caruso on keyboards, Keith Burman on guitar, Willow Bloom on bass, and Maddi Vogel on drums.
Adding to the extravaganza of entertainment is choreography by Jamal Howard, lighting design by Piper Kirchhofer, sound design by Eric Backus, and costume design by Liliana Otero. Scenic Designer Bek Lambrecht does an outstanding job establishing the atmosphere with an impactful industrial structure reminiscent of the original set for the Broadway production of RENT.
This production of Tick, Tick…Boom! was particularly moving to me due to Larson’s music and Frazier’s unique vision. There’s a good reason why these two elements stand out.
I was intimately considered to take over the role of Roger in the Broadway production during the heyday of the musical. During that time of flights to and from New York, I became deeply enthralled with Larson as a composer.
As someone who lives with dissociative identity disorder, I could be considered more of a “them” than most anyone else. While I choose to identify as a singular male (he/him), I respect the need for everyone to have their own identity and that at times that identity might not meet with conventional social norms. Therefore, I found BoHo Theatre’s nontraditional casting to be an absolutely magnificent vision of inclusion.
“Our production is inspired by grunge rock concerts as well as queer and trans counterculture of downtown 1990’s New York City,” explains Frazier. “With the hundreds of anti-trans bills being introduced across the country, it is now more important than ever to normalize TGNC representation on stage and amplify trans joy.”
Tick, Tick…Boom! runs through February 5th at The Edge Theatre located at 5451 N. Broadway in Chicago. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM and 7:30 PM, and Sundays at 3 PM. For those who work in entertainment themselves, there is an industry night performance scheduled for Monday, January 30th at 7:30 PM. In addition, there are open caption performances on Saturday, January 21st and Saturday January 28th at 3 PM.
Tickets are $35 for general admission; $20 for seniors, military, and first responders; and $12 for transgender and gender non-conforming audience members, students, and educational professionals. To order tickets go to: www.BoHoTheatre.com. For additional information contact the BoHo Theatre at (773) 791-2393.
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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