`Tick, Tick…BOOM’

Corrections or additions?

These reviews by Simon Saltzman were prepared for the July 18,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: `Blue’

Nona Hendryx’s R&B songs weave seductively and

evocatively

throughout Charles Randolph-Wright’s memory play, "Blue."

Although Wright’s play is not technically a musical, it is buoyed

by the composer’s lush melodic contributions (with some lyrics

contributed

by Wright). Hendryx, who began her career with the group Labelle

(culminating

with their No. 1 record, "Lady Marmalade"), provides songs

that frame the episodic play with honest and persuasive emotions that

are more superficially exercised in the text.

If the songs are terrific (and well sung by a very handsome Michael

McElroy, as a ghostly infiltrator), the play, about a prominent and

successful black family in South Carolina, is not hard to like given

its oddball one of a kind central character. Despite many good

performances

and a plot to keep you amused and attentive, it drives an uneasy path

between patent artificiality and bittersweet sentimentality. While

it is a clever conceit to have music play such an important role,

especially as it impacts on the plot, the song bridges also tend to

bring dramatic scenes to a halt.

To the author’s credit, the play mostly avoids the issues of race

and social alienation. Instead it centers on Wright’s own privileged,

dysfunctional (is there any other kind?) family, and most specifically

on his mother, a matriarch characterized as an unbridled spirit of

fabricated superiority. The factual York, South Carolina, setting

(the actual Wright Funeral Home is still a fixture there), however,

has been curiously changed to Kent. For whatever reasons the author

has for changing the town’s name, it is a moot point in the context

of the almost all true (according to the author himself) story he

is telling, with perhaps a little more contrivance and courage. The

play, in fact, often feels like a hybrid of sitcom comedy and

realistic

drama, neither outrageously funny enough for the one, nor compelling

enough for the other.

Phylicia Rashad plays Peggy Clark, the domineering, relentlessly

up-scaling

mother and wife. Sashaying around her domain (more abstractly than

accurately conceived by designer James Leonard Joy), Peggy takes her

role as the wife of a hugely successful undertaker very seriously.

She has resolved to make Samuel Clark III (Howard W. Overshown), her

cow-towing husband, and their two sons, reflections of her own ideals

and exemplars of the cultural pursuits she has immersed herself in

since giving up her modeling career up north. At home, she is

possessed

and empowered by the songs of Blue Williams, whose records she plays

incessantly.

Peggy has pinned her hopes and dreams on making her youngest son,

Reuben (Chad Tucker, as a youth, and Reuben Clark, as an adult), a

professional trumpet player. She is also busy guiding and grooming

the oldest, Samuel Jr. (Randall Shepperd), for marriage to a girl

of good social standing and for a future career alongside dad. You

would think that the family would see Peggy’s continuous obsessing

over Blue, the constraints she puts on everyone’s conduct, her

unrestrained

passion for purchasing fur coats (until it becomes politically

incorrect),

and her lack of interest in cooking (she has exotic dinners delivered

to the house, a most incredible feat, if you know the Carolinas),

as simply outlandish and eccentric. Their response, however, is mainly

tolerant, loving, and conciliatory. More mercifully down to earth

is their outspoken, nobody’s-fool grandma, warmly played by Jewell

Robinson.

The plot, rather than going for the effects of psychological damage

done to children by their parents, goes for plot twists that test

credibility. When her oldest son brings home LaTonya (a wonderfully

exuberant and funny Messeret Stroman), a girl from the wrong side

of the tracks, Peggy gives her the cold shoulder until she discovers

that LaTonya shares her passion for Blue. Their bonding is undone

when LaTonya runs off with Blue and Peggy is betrayed.

Fifteen years later, when the estranged Reuben, now a successful

record

producer, returns home for a visit, family secrets are unearthed with

remarkable swiftness. Under Sheldon Epp’s sheltering direction, the

deeply affected victims of a misguided mother ultimately appear less

psychologically crippled than they are committed to forging a way

to forgiveness. Not an unhealthy idea. Wright is a good writer with

promise, who has chosen, not without a few lapses, to exorcise his

bete noir with tenderness and understanding. Three stars. You won’t

feel cheated.

— Simon Saltzman

Blue, Roundabout at Gramercy Theater, 127 East 23 Street,

New York, 212-777-4900. $55.

Top Of Page
`Tick, Tick…BOOM’

There is an incomprehensible mismatch behind the great

success of the rock musical "Rent," and the sudden tragic

death of its composer Jonathan Larson, who, at the age of 35 succumbed

to an aortic aneurysm just prior to the musical’s first preview.

Adding

another poignant notch to Larson’s short life is "tick,

tick…BOOM,"

the tender, touching, and slightly self-indulgent biographical musical

he wrote before "Rent." For those who have seen and loved

"Rent," "tick, tick, BOOM" is a must. For those who

haven’t, "tick, tick, BOOM" stands securely on its own merits.

This less bombastic and more personal musical ardently reflects on

the composer’s own anxieties and frustrations on turning 30 and still

unable to get the big break he feels he deserves as a composer for

musical theater. In "tick, tick…BOOM," Jonathan is hard

at work on "Superbia" (a real project that Larson was in fact

working on), an unwieldy musical that is about to get its first

professional

reading.

Perhaps without any knowledge of Larson’s short life and death, we

might not feel the melancholy that infiltrates even the show’s

brightest

moments. But whether or not you are a member of the Larson fan club,

there is little doubt that the irrepressibly appealing music and witty

lyrics will impress you.

David Auburn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Proof,"

has done a terrific job of putting together elements from three

versions

that Larson wrote and originally performed as a solo piece. And Auburn

has done a masterful job of fitting the solo piece to the talents

of three fine performers. Raul Esparza, who played Riff-Raff in

"The

Rocky Horror Show," has the task of making endearing the anxious,

overwrought, impatient-for-recognition Jonathan.

As the show’s narrative driver, Esparza turns kvetching into a lovable

trait. His funny and touching high-strung portrayal reflects both

Jonathan’s irrepressible enthusiasm as much as it does his conflicted

insecurities, acutely aware as he is of the "tick tick" of

the clock followed by the "BOOM" of a failure.

Amy Spanger (recently seen as Bianca/Lois in the revival "Kiss

Me Kate") is dynamite as Jonathan’s girl friend, who tries in

vain to lure Jonathan away from a career in the city. Jerry Dixon,

who plays Jonathan’s roommate and friend since childhood, and who

gives up an acting career for the security of a job in marketing,

also makes a sizable musical and dramatic contribution. All three

have powerhouse voices that move easily from the sweeter ballads to

the comic patter tunes, to the full-throttle rock mode of "Louder

Than Words."

What remains as the show’s raison d’etre is Larson’s score and his

grandiose and largely successful scheme to fuse traditional theater

music with the rebellious bombast of the rock idiom. You may say that

this is not new (think "Jesus Christ, Superstar" all the way

to "Jekyll and Hyde"). But Larson’s muse (he makes no bones

about Stephen Sondheim being his musical idol) undoubtedly allows

him to empower classical styles with a fresh melodic line and a

stirring

pop-rock beat that is truly original. A four-man band is perched above

designer Anna Louizos’ modest, but effective, setting. Director Scott

Schwartz uses a firm but gentle touch to bring the best out of a life

that immodestly persuades us that the best was yet to come. Three

stars. You won’t feel cheated.

— Simon Saltzman

tick, tick, BOOM, Jane Street Theater, 113 Jane Street,

between Washington and West Streets, 212-239-6200. $20 to $50.


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