tick, tick... BOOM!

Jonathan Larson
Yes Please Theatre Company
Newbridge Memo
to

Devotees of contemporary American musical theatre—I have to confess to not being one—will be well aware of the tragic story of composer-lyricist-dramatist Jonathan Larson.

Having struggled to make a success of his career on the New York scene for several years, enduring several false starts whilst supporting himself by working as a waiter, he died of an undiagnosed heart condition at the age of 36, just as his latest musical was about to preview off-Broadway. That show was called Rent, and went on to be a massive, worldwide hit (even I saw it, on a rare excursion to the West End)—it redefined the form for a new generation.

In the wake of this success, a producer friend of Larson’s engaged playwright David Auburn (of Proof fame) to rework tick, tick… BOOM!, which Larson had initially performed as a rock monologue in 1990. It is this version, for three actors plus live band, which Yes Please has chosen as its inaugural production, under the fluent direction of Rhys Moore.

Osian Garmon stars as Jonathan, a composer-lyricist-dramatist, who is working as a waiter whilst struggling to make a success on (or even off) Broadway. The production is preceded by the insistent sound of a ticking clock (sound design is by Joe Marvelly), which Jonathan claims is constantly playing in his head as he approaches his 30th birthday without having “made it”. The “boom”, with spooky prescience, represents his time running out.

He has a girlfriend, Susan, played by Jennifer Adams, a dancer turned dance teacher who understands his passion for his art, but wants to settle down in a less pressurised environment.

There is also his friend Peter Willoughby’s Michael, who has abandoned his acting career to work, lucratively, in market research, and has no qualms about flaunting his affluence (flash car, smart suits etc). He is also in a position to recommend Jon for a position in his firm.

Larson’s score, played impeccably by musical director Connor Fogel and on-stage band (Jay Haynes on drums, Ben Rowe on guitar, Lewis Watkins on bass), is tuneful and his script is witty, although, in common with most modern musicals, many of the lyrics are annoyingly over-expository, and the inevitable comedy songs simply irritate.

A bigger problem, though, is that Jonathan is not entirely likeable. Although played with great charm by Garmon, he is something of a whinger, despite having a delightful, supportive, empathetic partner and a close friend who could easily parachute him into well-paid employment, living in “boring” Bush-era America and being respected in his chosen field, the lack of material success notwithstanding. Larson seems to acknowledge this obnoxiousness by giving Michael much bigger problems to deal with, presaging some of the issues covered in Rent.

The performances are all excellent, in respect of both acting and singing; Willoughby is perhaps the least strong, vocally, but makes up for it with a gift for physical comedy, and acquits himself well with his showpiece ballad “Real Life”.

Adams is sympathetic as Susan, who could easily come across as whiny; and also shines in smaller turns as Jon’s parodically brash agent and Karessa, the flirtatious actress who is starring in the musical he is about to showcase, which features another stand-out slowie, “Come To Your Senses”.

Aarwn Brown’s two-storey set is simple but effective in its evocation of Manhattan budget apartment living; and Joe Blomfield’s video backdrops are equally clever—a highlight being the apparently live feed of Fogel’s keyboard playing, reflecting Jonathan’s musicianship.

A bold choice for a production in the cavernous main auditorium of one of the South Wales’ Valleys many historic working men’s institutes, this is a highly accomplished rendering of a piece which seems to be steadily acquiring modern classic status. On this evidence, the area’s reputation for producing stars of the West End musical stage is secure.

Othniel Smith