Before his smash Broadway hit “Rent,” Jonathan Larson wrote an autobiographical, one-man musical which eventually was turned into the small ensemble piece “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” For fans of “Rent,” “Tick” can be seen as a rough draft of songs and characters that would ultimately end up in his more complete rock drama. Despite its incomplete nature, Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. and director Chad Badgero attempt to give Larson’s self-absorbed concept the polish they give most productions, but in a cramped space with an emotionless lead, “Tick” proves to be more pipe dream than pipe bomb.
The play tells the story of Jon, played by Sam Zikakis, who laments tunefully about his upcoming 30th birthday, pondering whether to keep struggling as a musical playwright or join the corporate world. While the explosive title refers to Jon’s fear of dying before he does something meaningful, it also seems to be a metaphor for the show’s focus. From beginning to end, “Tick” touches on almost every topical issue of 1990, from the complacency of Jon’s generation to staying true as an artist to the AIDS epidemic. Autobiographical as it may be, this random spattering of subjects keep any central points from being particularly penetrating or memorable.
Zikakis is burdened with making the show relatable to a Midwest audience struggling with its own financial problems, and he fails to do so. His pleasant voice hits all the notes, but his eyes never connect with the audience. Monologue after monologue, his face remains chiseled and expressionless with eyes toward the ceiling, keeping his character aloof and narcissistic instead of sympathetic.
Drew Fifield and Jocelyn Scofield, who play Jon’s best friend, Michael, and girlfriend, Susan, along with a variety of passing characters, easily match Zikakis’ vocal talents but quickly surpass his simple gestures, offering characters slightly richer than Larson’s flat script allows.
Michael was an actor who joined the corporate ranks, and he encourages Jon to do the same, at the price of his soul. Susan wants to make things work, but she wants to live better, even if it means moving out of the city. Fifield and Scofield hit all of the marks they can, and they make up for their weak lines with hilarious peripheral caricatures.
Music director Dan Alt and a quartet of musicians keep the show rocking even though the acoustics of the room and the linear alignment of the band make for sloppy starts.
He may have left little room for the band, but Fred Engelgau’s set makes the most of the cramped space, and the Creole Gallery stage transforms well into the interior of a low-rent New York apartment.
Ultimately, “tick, tick … BOOM” doesn’t seem concerned with anything beyond dreams and ideas. Still, while it may not click with general audiences, like “Rent” does, “Tick” will move those enamored with Larson’s later work who are hungry to see where it all began.
tick ... tick ... BOOM!
Through Feb. 7 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. Creole Gallery, 1218 Turner St., Lansing $10/$15 (517) 927-3016 www.peppermintcreek.org