There's no beating death as a remedy for what you don't achieve in life. If playwright Jonathan Larson were with us, he'd cop to that concept, and he might point to his surprise blockbuster Broadway musical as proof. Rent, about an aspiring video artist who can't pay his, won four Tonys and the drama Pulitzer in 1996 shortly after Larson's death. Contrary to reports that he succumbed to AIDS, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm at age 35—on the night of Rent's final dress rehearsal.
Rent is loopy with Larson's almost desperate reflections about young lives lived on their owners' terms. In fact, you might call his tick, tick... BOOM!, the current Stone Soup Theatre entry, a Rent prototype. Central character Jonathan approaches life with the same urgency as he's about to hit 30, obsessed with writing the great American musical and idolizing Stephen Sondheim from his dank New York flat. The situational stuff works well here in the form of fleshed-out roles like that of Jonathan's close friend Mike, a young corporate high-roller diagnosed with AIDS, and girlfriend Susan, whose wanderlust gets the better of her even as her heart belongs to Jon.
Director Lindsey Gearhart has added some nice familial touches, like placing Mike and Susan (Eric Vest and Briona Daugherty) on the periphery during the action (along with the band, for that matter); she also makes good use of the stage as a character-development tool. Watch the funny numbers “Therapy” and “Sugar,” which are superbly conceived.
As with Rent, the idea is to follow your dreams while there's still time. Good (if hackneyed) advice from two big-hearted scripts that require stages the size of the outdoors, a resource that this show lacks to the point of distraction. Under different conditions, Jim Chatham's Jonathan would read appropriately addle-brained and wistful. In the 63-seat Lab at the Academy of Peforming Arts, he looks positively hyperthyroidal, foisting Larson's message on us amid a relentless deer-in-the-headlights glare. The other personnel's affectations suffer, too—they're well-conceived, and everybody's cast nicely to type in multiple roles, but the actors are often so close to us that they're taking us in before we get a chance to think about returning the favor.
Don't pass up this piece on this demerit alone. Under music director Charlie Reuter, Larson's tunes frame the action carefully while retaining an outer layer of energy and hopefulness. Some may say Larson relies too heavily on sentiment as a hook, and I can see their point—but his characters are lively and well-spoken nonetheless. This piece is eminently honest with itself, and it has many things to recommend it.
But there may be a back-story here: My post-show understanding is that tick, tick... BOOM! was originally set for the Tenth Avenue Theatre downtown, with its 107 seats, deep rear stage and cavernous ceilings. The Tenth would have meant a step in the right direction—that is, until unwieldy inspection practices reportedly got in the way. Tough duty creating a theater environment in a city that won't let it evolve. This review is based on the opening-night performance of Feb. 24. tick, tick... BOOM! runs through March 30 at The Lab, Academy of Performing Arts, 4580-B Alvarado Canyon Road in Mission Valley. $25, student rush $20 an hour before the show. 619-287-3065 or www.stonesouptheatre.net.