Photo by Jenn Udoni (he/they) – Franco Images Photography
“Cages or wings: Which do you prefer? Ask the birds. Fear or love, baby, don’t say the answer; actions speak louder than words.”
These lyrics, from the song “Louder Than Words,” which comes near the end of Boho Theatre’s powerful, honest, and emotional production of Jonathan Larson’s “other” play, tick…tick…BOOM!, pretty much contain the musical’s most important message. They also contain the germ of director Bo Frazier’s inspiration to cast only transgender and gender non-conforming performers. Every TGNC person, Frazier told me, at some point has to “choose cages or wings: whether to live a lie and conform to societal pressure or blaze a trail and live a life of personal truth.”
It is utterly clear which path Frazier and Larson want them to take.
The show, only the third production ever in Chicago, focuses on Larson’s struggling efforts to create his first musical, which he called “Superbia.” That show proved too unwieldy for Broadway, but no less a personage than Stephen Sondheim praised Larson’s craft and encouraged him to write more. Tick…tick…BOOM! was the result: a small-cast autobiographical musical in which three actors take on many parts to tell a story about an artist’s struggles—territory that Larson would explore again in his Pultizer Prize-winning Rent.
Alex Phan (he/they) stars here as “Jon,” the Larson character, while Luke Halpern (they/he/she) is Larson’s girlfriend Susan, and Crystal Claros (they/he/she) takes on the role of his best friend Michael. Both of these latter actors also play other roles. An onstage four-piece band under the leadership of music director Harper Abigail Caruso provides a lively and exuberant rock accompaniment. Phan themself (as Jon) plays solo on the keyboard for the painful and plaintive “Why.”
Phan is a completely likable performer with whom the audience can easily identify. Their boyish good looks and clear vocals—powerful in rocking moments, lovely and even melancholy in quieter ones—build an instant connection with the on-the-verge-of-thirty Jon, and Phan’s ardently moving performance does the rest. The show’s first song, “30/90,” allows Phan an emotive pathway to explore the playwright’s frustration with how much time he has spent with so little result. “Clock is ticking, that’s for certain,” he complains, while within him the constant sound of some kind of bomb (the “tick…tick…boom” of the title) threatens to destroy him.
Halpern’s Susan is a joy, as is also their turn as Jon’s agent Rosa. Both roles allow them opportunities to strut their stuff. Susan is the more developed and nuanced character by far; the hilarious Rosa is almost purely defined by her gruff smoker’s voice and flat affect. With Susan, though, Halpern is able to be playful (especially as they dance flirtatiously in a miniskirt) as well as poignant. Susan is tired of New York as well as keeping her own dance career on hold for Jon; she wants them both to move to Cape Cod, but she knows their time together is coming to an end.
“Why do we stay with lovers who we know, down deep, just aren’t right?” she asks. The answer comes in a dark echo of the loneliness that she feels: the knowledge that she and Jon would both rather “put ourselves through hell than sleep alone at night.”
Larson’s script doesn’t really afford enough room to explore this dynamic fully. (The Lin-Manuel Miranda-directed film version clocks in at about twenty minutes longer than the 90-minute stage version, and much of that time is spent fleshing out some of the more compelling relationships.) But Halpern’s and Phan’s sensitive performances help us to feel the pain of their characters’ failure. As Halpern’s other major character, Kerissa, in the showstopping number “Come to Your Senses,” laments, “We sure put on a show. Love is passe in this day and age; how can we expect it to grow?”
Claros (who also plays Jon’s father in several short and funny moments) is excellent as the upwardly mobile Michael, whom Jon envies for his car and apartment but not for his “sellout” job in advertising. That apartment is the subject of the jubilant song “No More,” in which an ecstatic Michael declares how much he loves his new life: “No more faulty wiring, no more painted floors, no more spitting out my Ultra Brite on top of dirty dishes in the one and only sink.” (The Bohemian life celebrated by the main characters in Rent clearly has its drawbacks.) Claros, who is also quite funny later as a frustrated convenience store owner, gets the opportunity later to shine in a more serious mode. Michael is holding something back from his interactions with his friend, and it occasionally comes through subtly on Claros’ face even before Michael tells Jon, a nice bit of acting.
Larson was too good a playwright not to add in some wonderfully whimsical and comic moments. Chief among these is his inventive and playful exploration of the breakdown of Jon’s and Susan’s relationship in the song “Therapy”: “I feel bad that you feel bad about me feeling bad about you feeling bad about what I said about what you said about me not being able to share a feeling.” Equally brilliant is Jon’s irritated take on having to work shifts at a local diner. Structured as a parody of Sondheim’s “Sunday” (from Sunday in the Park With George), the song finds Jon musing about the idiocy of his clients: “Sunday in the blue, silver chromium diner on the green, purple, yellow, red stools sit the fools who should eat at home. Instead, they pay on.”
This is, however, Frazier’s vision from start to finish. They told me that “it is so important to humanize the TGNC community with this production. So often we are demonized in the media and fetishized on dating apps, but I truly want to normalize our existence.” This is not just a production for that community though. “We are presenting a relatable story that many audience members will be familiar with, just this time we have different identities on stage,” they said, and the three actors do their best to make that happen.
It’s not really possible to completely forget about Halpern’s tightly-trimmed beard or Claros’ soprano voice, but that is entirely intentional, and the wonderful thing is that such issues simply make no difference. The audience accepts them in these roles because the actors demand it. Frazier said that “it definitely adds an extra layer of nuance to our production,” but the reality is that everyone understands “that feeling of being lost, your life not being what you thought it would be, and trying to find your way in the world.”
After the opening night show, I caught up with Frazier briefly. Smiling, they told me, “I think maybe the show actually works better with a TGNG cast.” I completely agree. Sometimes, an inspiration just works perfectly.
Tick…tick…BOOM! is playing through February 5 at The Edge Theatre, 5451 N Broadway, Chicago. Tickets are available from Boho Theatre.
(Quotes from Bo Frazier previously appeared in The Reader.)