'The sound you are hearing is not a technical problem," says underappreciated composer Jon (DC Dennis), addressing the members of the audience with amped-up anxiety as he explains the mysterious time-bomb sound that is tick-tick-ticking in the background. While there certainly were a few small technical problems on opening night of Summer Repertory Theatre's Tick, Tick . . . Boom!, the conspicuous sound effect merely signifies Jon's sense of impending doom as he nears his 30th birthday. The boom, metaphorically speaking, is the sound of the first-rate cast exploding onto the stage with passion and commitment, as if they have no idea they are all much better and stronger than the weak, underdeveloped material they are performing.
TTB is the autobiographical story of Larson's own existential crisis as a not-yet-famous composer struggling with life and art; at the time he wrote this show, he was still five years away from the opening of the phenomenally popular Rent, and as is pointed out at the end of the show, he was never able to enjoy his success, as he died of an aneurysm the day before the show opened on Broadway.
Unfortunately, as written, TTB is pretty thin stuff, narrowly focused and annoyingly narcissistic. This is not a musical so much as it is a loosely connected showcase of Jonathon Larson songs. Some of those songs advance the story (what little there is of it), while several seem to have been dropped into the show primarily because it needed the padding. As it is, even with all the pleasant but pointless filler songs in place, the show runs a quick 90 minutes, staged without an intermission by director Johanna Pinzler.
There is certainly nothing wrong with plotless shows; on the contrary, SRT has done wonders this season with the Studs Terkel musical Working, and that show, inspired by Terkel's oral histories, is little more than a series of interviews set to music. But what Working has that TTB doesn't is a compelling core idea. Compared to the achingly real, battle-scarred pain expressed by Working's noble parade of waitresses, construction workers, policemen, housewives and factory drones, there is little to get worked up over in watching the overwrought angst of a smart, talented guy with a girlfriend who loves him and a family who supports him, moaning and groaning because he's about to turn the big three-oh without having yet had a show run on Broadway.
That's a crisis? Join the club, buddy.
In spite of these faults and in spite of the fact that TTB is not a great musical, I have to admit that I enjoyed this production solely because of the energy and passion of the cast and the tunefulness of Larson's otherwise lyrically weak songs. As Jon, Dennis sings beautifully, plays the piano well and convincingly captures the uncertainty of the character, who after years of struggle with no measurable success, is still waiting tables and dodging the pressures of friends, family and lovers to grow up and stop dreaming.
As his sexy dancer girlfriend, Susan, Julie Marie Lewis is sensational, with a voice that knocks the stuffing out of most American Idol contestants. Like Jon, Susan is also an artist, but is willing to find ways to keep dancing while pursuing her dreams of a home and a family away from the manic-depressive environs of Broadway. Lewis, alternately tough and tender, nails the part, and especially shines in the post-curtain-call performance of Rent's "Seasons of Love."
The rest of the cast is also fine. Nathan C. Crocker plays Jon's upwardly mobile gay friend Michael, and you can tell from his first moments that he is carrying a major secret. Anastasia Gillaspie and Christopher Tocco, quick-changing through an assortment of characters, are frequently funny and vocally strong. The onstage band, directed by conductor Mark Nichols, are spot-on and high-energy throughout the show.
There certainly is drama to be drawn from the lives of artists struggling to make a mark in a world that keeps demanding they set aside their dreams in exchange for a regular paycheck, and at times, Tick, Tick . . . Boom! ventures into the general neighborhood of such drama. The reason to see the show, however, is not for the play itself, but for the performances. Think of it as a rock concert with a lost-in-the-'90s theme, and you may have a good time and leave the theater humming a pleasant tune. Sometimes, that's enough.
Molière's Learned Ladies, directed with grace and visual flair by Makaela Pollock, is a pleasant trifle about a French bourgeois household in which the woman of the house, Philaminte (an excellent Kate Thomsen), has turned the parlor into a university, bringing in the famous if foolish writer Trissotin (Haas Regen) to educate her daughters, Armande (Denice Burbach) and Henriette (Samantha Kaliswa Brewster). As one visitor comments, "Thinking is all this household thinks about!" and each of the daughters has responded differently to her rigorous intellectual training. Armande has embraced a life of the mind and, despite her beauty and attractiveness to numerous suitors, has pledged to pursue only platonic love. Henriette, however, has chosen to forswear further development of her mind, and has fallen in love with Armande's former suitor, Clitandre (Chris Shea), who wants to marry her.
Meanwhile, Philaminte's sister Belise (delightfully played by Erin Michelle Washington) is basically nuts, convinced that all men love her despite all evidence to the contrary, and Philaminte's husband, Chrysale (Scott Raker), is desperately holding on to the illusion that he is the head of the household. Having agreed to let Henriette marry Clitandre, Chrysale must now convince Philaminte, who is set on marrying Henriette to the dowry-hungry Trissotin.
A special note should be made about the costumes, by Robyn Spencer-Crompton, who has designed a colorful lace confectionary of ruffles and cleavage-baring corsets that is as pleasing to see as Molière's cleverly satirical language is to hear.
Told entirely in verse, The Learned Ladies takes place in Taming of the Shrew territory, with plenty of discussion of women's proper place in the home. The best line is uttered by Martine (Madeline Harris), the kitchen maid, who exclaims, "The cock, not the hen, should be the one to crow," with the double-entendre blatantly illustrated. The cast are superb, handling all the rhymes with natural ease, playing the comedy broadly but still revealing the real humans hurting or hoping beneath the well-constructed silliness.
'Tick, Tick . . . Boom!' runs through Aug. 9. July 19-21 and 31 and Aug. 1, 7 and 9 at 8pm; July 22 and 29 at 7:30pm; also, July 22, 29 and Aug. 1 at 2pm. Burbank Auditorium, SRJC, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. $8-$20. 'The Learned Ladies' runs through Aug. 7. July 19-21 and 31, Aug. 1 and 7 at 8pm; July 22 and 29 at 7:30pm; also July 22, 29 and Aug. 1 at 2pm. $8-$15. Newman Auditorium, Santa Rosa Junior College, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.527.4343.