Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the average Broadway musical takes years of readings, workshops, script changes, and the tireless work of finding producers to get a marquee on that fabulous street in New York City.
The process takes ages, particularly if you are an unknown writer dying to make your mark with something that no one else has seen. The unknown writer here is Jonathan Larson, and Tick, Tick … Boom!, currently running at Arena Dinner Theater, is his story — well, at least a part of it.
‘Tick, Tick … Boom!’
7 p.m. Friday, June 30
7 p.m. Saturday, July 1
Arena Dinner Theatre
719 Rockhill St., Fort Wayne
$45 · (260) 422-4226
Setting the scene
If you’re unfamiliar with the name Jonathan Larson, it might be because he produced only one true Broadway show, the ’90s smash Rent. I could spend hours discussing the life Larson had: his struggle to survive living in New York City on a waiter’s salary, his misery watching friend after friend being diagnosed with HIV and AIDS, and how very hard he worked to be “Broadway’s next big thing.”
But I don’t have to, because even though he died the same day all of his dreams came true, at the age of 36, he documented his path, and it is so beautifully recorded in Tick, Tick … Boom!, a musical originally performed solo by Larson at The New York Theater Workshop, a venue not all that different than Arena.
Tick, Tick … Boom! in its current form at Arena is a cast of three: Jon (Caleb Curtis), Jon’s best friend Michael (Aaron Mann), and Susan (Chrissy Weadick).
It is actually unfair to say it’s only three characters, as many other caricatures appear throughout, portrayed in turns by Weadick and Mann, often in rapid succession or combination. At one point, Weadick does four costume and character changes in less than two minutes and does so flawlessly. Each of Weadick’s characters is its own, no matter how briefly. While playing Susan, Weadick expertly follows her character’s highs and lows of loving a starving artist while trying to be a successful one herself.
Weadick and Curtis have excellent chemistry, both when Susan and Jon are amorous and when they spar.
“Therapy,” where Jon and Susan have a squabble over the age-old question of “your place or mine” is impressive, silly, sarcastic, and perfectly in sync, which is a feat due to the accelerating tempo of the song.
Speaking of tempo, another excellent moment of Arena’s staging comes during “Sunday.” The song, originally written as a parody of a Stephen Sondheim piece of the same name, is Jon dictating his thoughts of the Sunday brunch service at the Moondance Diner where he works. Arena’s staging, cleverly crafted by director Jake Wilhelm, is ingenious. The song is carried out completely in slow-motion movements, including the stage crew, who come on stage to serve as the diner’s patrons. It was a hilarious masterwork of timing, the true highlight of Act 1.
Chemistry with best friend
Not to be overlooked is Mann as Jon’s best friend, Michael.
His relationship with Curtis plays as very genuine. They, too, have excellent chemistry, able to navigate the many emotional swings of their relationship. “No More” in Act 1 finds them at the height of silliness as they explore Michael’s new apartment (another example of excellent staging using the stage crew), even incorporating some West Side Story choreography, which is an obscure reference to an emotional Act 2 song.
Mann also has some beautiful tranquil and somber moments.
In “See Her Smile,” he helps the band to accompany Jonathan while also serving as a kind of minstrel character for Jon to interact with while pondering his relationship with Susan. Mann did an excellent job playing acoustic guitar live, and I found that moment of staging to be very sweet and endearing.
Tapping into emotions
I would be remiss if I didn’t give substantial credit to Curtis.
It cannot be easy to portray a role recently nominated for an Oscar (Andrew Garfield portrays Jon in the Netflix film directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda).
In Act 1, Curtis’ Jon is neurotic, with many ticks echoing the ones the character hears building in his head. He is silly, irreverent, and exuberant. In Act 2, however, Curtis excels. Jon goes through the gamut of emotions, and Curtis nailed them all. In “Why,” the emotional anguish that Jon feels when Michael reveals he is HIV-positive is palpable, and real tears are shed, not only onstage, but also in the audience. Jon is the whole show, and Curtis does an excellent job keeping the show together.
There is something very intimate about being let into the mind of an artist, or anyone, really.
Tick, Tick … Boom! is a real look into that, as Jon’s character breaks the fourth wall frequently to directly address the audience, but what really builds on that intimacy is how cozy Arena’s venue feels. It truly is like you’re living the moment as Larsen performs in the studios at the Village Gate or a New York theater workshop.
For most of the production the stage is blank, with only a lit brick wall behind the four-piece band which provides accompaniment for the show. The few scenery pieces when brought on only allude to what they represent but really help solidify the feel of Larson’s early workshops.
Tick, Tick … Boom! is worth the visit to this hidden gem of a theater in Fort Wayne, to both share an emotional connection with a struggling artist and to enjoy some excellent entertainment.