Fringe 2009, Garden Club
Feb 25-28 | Reviewed by Kate Blackhurst

Tick, Tick... Boom! begins with the main character, Jon (Sam Benton), explaining over a metronomic ticking sound, “The sound you are hearing is not a technical problem. It is not a musical cue. It is not a joke. It is the sound of one man’s mounting anxiety. I... am that man.” From there on we are taken deep within his self-indulgent, navel-gazing, pre-mid-life crisis, which he describes to the audience in detailed neurotic New York fashion that Woody Allen would admire. But it’s good!

Jon, so he tells us, is a promising young composer, but he is traumatized by his upcoming 30th. If you turn 30 in the 90s (the play is set in 1990 in a SoHo apartment), “bang, you’re dead; boom, you’re past it”. He finds himself unable to play ‘Happy Birthday’ on the piano which apparently symbolizes his fear and hesitation over growing up. He wants to write the next great musical – “the Hair of the Nineties” – but wonders whether to continue as a starving artist or get a money-making career like his best friend Michael (Martin Brown) who has sold out to advertising.

Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Susan (Rachel Day) is a dance teacher teaching ballet to “wealthy and untalented children”. She wants to move to Cape Cod and start a family – their relationship is clearly in jeopardy as they can’t be bothered to cross the city to visit each other (it’s two subways and a bus) but don’t think about moving in together. It’s exacerbated when Jon has a brief flirtation with the lead singer of his musical SUPERBIA, Karessa (also played by Day in boho pink wig).

Cue lots of angst-ridden songs with titles like ‘Johnny Can’t Decide’, ‘Real Life’, ‘Come to Your Senses’ and ‘Why’. Do you follow your dreams if that means waiting tables for the rest of your life? “How can you soar when you’re nailed to the floor/ How do you know when it’s time to let go?” Or do you bite the bullet and accept material wealth and mediocrity? This is musical theatre, so I’ll let you guess the answer to that one.

The Garden Club is far from ideal as a venue for musical theatre. On opening night the sound mixing was awful so you could hardly hear the lyrics above the band, although it’s great to see a live band, and the actors did their best to enunciate clearly. There are solos, duets and three part harmonies and the singing is very good, when you can hear it. They also had to struggle against a loud droning air-conditioning system and the front-of-house staff who talked and clattered throughout. It didn’t help that almost every song began with a whisper before building to its crescendo.

Because of this, many of the songs seem similar with one or two stand-outs. ‘Sunday’ in which the American diner brunch is a particular kind of repetitive hell is an amusing tribute to Stephen Sondheim – the hero of writer/composer, Jonathan Larson. The up-tempo numbers are highlights – particularly ‘Therapy’ a duet between Jon and Susan in which a desultory disagreement on the phone becomes a full-blown row, and ‘No More’ in which Michael and Jon revel in the luxuries of Michael’s new apartment in Victory Towers and the change in his fortunes now he can afford luxuries such as a dishwasher and a BMW with heated seats.

As they leap about playing air guitar and strutting across the stage like overgrown adolescents, the fun emerges which is largely lacking in the rest of the show. Choreographer Stacey Neale has her work cut out as this is not an especially exuberant show. Jonathan Larson also wrote Rent, which isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs either, and Jon complains that his generation was raised on The Brady Bunch and Reaganomics. The 90s are not exciting; in fact they are ‘stodgy, complacent, conservative, obtuse and unimaginative. To put it another way, George Bush is president.’ There are a couple of dance numbers, however, as a sugar rush and a green dress provide opportunities for the performers to jazz things up a bit.

Tick, Tick... Boom! has its share of clichés, including a musical within a musical and the existentialist search for meaning, but it also has some excellent one-liners and some Faulkner-esque narrative. The acting is as good as (if not better than) the singing and the delivery is clear and engaging. All incidental roles are played by Day and Brown – including one which is portrayed by both at different times – proving the power of costume.

This is a musical for performers and lovers of performance. It’s a tight little ensemble piece in which the cast and crew clearly work well together. Plaudits should go to director Matt Bentley for bringing this very time-and-place-specific show to Wellington. Those who saw it loved it and there was lots of whooping and hollering from the audience. It deserves a longer run in a more dedicated venue.