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The poignant music of a life racing time

November 22, 2005|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

At the start of "tick ... tick ... BOOM!" -- a musical by and about the late Jonathan Larson, creator of "Rent" -- the hero laments years of futility trying to advance past his "promising young composer" status: "I've been 'promising' for so long I'm afraid I'm starting to break the ... promise."

Of course, Larson's crisis of self-doubt takes place before the success that would validate his struggle. Ideally timed to coincide with the release of the film version of "Rent," this autobiographical musical portrait of the artist at a pivotal crossroads makes a deeply moving West Coast debut at Ventura's Rubicon Theatre.

Though "Rent" sadly remains Larson's only fully realized musical theater legacy (he died from an aortic aneurism at age 36), "tick ... tick ... BOOM!" offers a more intimate and emotionally revealing look at his breakthrough talent. The power and sophistication of these earlier songs proves "Rent" was no fluke.

Originally performed in various incarnations as a musical monologue, the material was posthumously reworked into its present three-actor form by "Proof" author David Auburn and Scott Schwartz, who directed the original off-Broadway and London productions and helms this Rubicon staging.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 23, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Theater review -- The credit line for the photo that accompanied the review of the play "tick ... tick ... BOOM!" in Tuesday's Calendar misspelled the first name of photographer Nick Weissman as Rick.

A few dated cliches and labored expositions notwithstanding, they've produced a remarkably fluid narrative. Adding to the show's impeccable pedigree are versatile Natascia Diaz (from the off-Broadway production) and Wilson Cruz (from the national tour), respectively playing the composer's girlfriend and best friend as well as various supporting characters.

Relative newcomer Andrew Samonsky shows his acting and singing chops in a stunning turn as the spiky-haired, sweet-voiced Jon, an incorrigible innocent determined to give a substantive voice to a generation "blowing like tumbleweeds through the '90s."

When we first meet Jon, two converging traumas are driving him crazy. The first is a potential breakthrough opportunity, an upcoming workshop presentation of his rock musical, "Superbia." Without the wisdom of hindsight, the stakes are enormous. In 1990, a stage musical with true rock music ("not warmed-over easy-listening pop") seemed a contradiction in terms. "Broadway's about 60 years behind anything you hear on the radio," Jon points out.

Larson's special ability to marry complex explorations of character with hard-driving rhythms and melodies normally associated with hormone-driven hedonism is apparent in the show's haunting rock songs and ballads, performed with a live band. Standouts are Jon's introspective ambivalence about his artistic calling ("Why" and "Johnny Can't Decide"), and a plea for authentic feeling in an era of cold cynicism ("Come to Your Senses") sung by Diaz to show-stopping effect.

Jon's other source of turmoil is his approaching 30th birthday and its imperative to face up to adult responsibilities -- an echo from "Company" and the first of many nods to Larson's idol and mentor, Stephen Sondheim (who even makes an important, albeit phoned-in, cameo). In fact, this entire piece is an implied -- and at one point explicit -- answer to the problem posed in Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park With George": the role of the artist in a changing world.

As Jon races to realize his potential against his ominously prescient sense of a ticking time bomb of imminent disaster, the sacrifices, disappointments and ultimate necessity of following his true passion are uncovered and magnificently summed up in the "Louder Than Words" finale.

That the boom would fall for Larson only six years later is a source of poignancy, not irony, in this heartfelt celebration of a major talent who established artistic and commercial viability for a new generation of musical theater.


'tick ... tick ... BOOM!'

Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura

When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Dec. 18

Price: $26 to $49

Contact: (805) 667-2900 or

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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