Saturday, February 16, 2019

Cloverdale Playhouse: "tick, tick,,,BOOM!"

Disclosure: the reviewer is a former member of the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse.

The sound of anxiety fills the darkened theatre; a clock ticks ominously; then a narrator's voice explains his distress at approaching his 30th birthday without opening a successful musical in New York; his roommate has landed a dream job on Madison Avenue, and his dancer girlfriend is considering a move outside the city. What's a boy to do? -- Author-composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson started his autobiographical tick, tick...BOOM! as a solo piece in 1990 to come to terms with his condition; after his untimely death just as his production of the landmark rock-opera Rent was about to open in 1996, playwright David Auburn turned it into a 90-minute 3-character play, and now The Cloverdale Playhouse has opened its 8th Season with tick, tick,,,BOOM!, co-directed by Randy Foster and Eleanor K. Davis.

J. Scott Grinstead has designed yet another stunning set -- a black and white abstract combination of platforms, steps, and ramps, suspended window frames, and painted deconstructed clock-works -- that afford height and depth to the Playhouse's small stage, an upstage platform for the admirable four-piece band, and plenty of space for the actors.  -- Mr. Grinstead's ambitious designs cry out for equally ambitious lighting; an investment in additional lighting instruments would afford James Treadway the opportunity to enhance each set with his creative flair and eliminate unfortunate shadows.

Larson's picture of New York in the 1990s evokes the lives of artistic GenX-ers eking out a living in dingy SOHO flats while hanging onto dreams of "making it" before age gets in the way of accomplishments. -- And, while their anxieties can be attributed to almost any age bracket, the demographic appeal of tick, tick...BOOM! is limited. This caveat notwithstanding, the Playhouse company engages and entertains on many levels.

The focus here is on the three-person ensemble: David Rowland as Jon, Jesse Alston as his girlfriend Susan, and John Selden as roommate Michael (Ms. Alston and Mr. Selden also play a number of other characters in the narrative). -- Each comes with an impressive resume, and an ability to fill the room without amplification of their voices. [If only other amateur and professional performing companies would follow their lead instead of bombarding audiences with deafening instrumentation and over-amped voices that distort the sound of the natural singing voice.]

Larson's score is a pleasant mix of light rock styles, and while there is no signature song to anchor the narrative as there is in many blockbuster musicals, each one carries the story and develops character relationships, easily conscripting audiences into the characters' lives.

Mr. Selden's portrayal of the gay roommate Michael, who wants his best friend to have a share in his success and introduces him to the corporate world that can never be a good fit for Jon, along with his understated comical persona of Jon's father, are spot on. Gifted with a singing voice that registers clearly on all counts, Mr. Selden is one to watch.

Ms. Alston, always a powerful force on stage, runs the gamut from romantic lyricism to brassy comical  vocals, shining both as Jon's girlfriend Susan and in other supporting cameo parts. Her ability to modulate from one format to another while demonstrating Susan's love for Jon keeps the play grounded and her performance memorable.

Mr. Rowland is never off the stage or out of our sphere of attention. In a masterful display of singing, and of generously sharing the boards with his co-stars, he is assured and comfortable in the role. The clarity of his voice, and the stamina it takes to control the narrative and emotion, make for a remarkably nuanced performance.

This trio of actors-singers-dancers is a tight ensemble; Directors Foster and Davis make the 90-minutes fly by, while Daren Eastwold's uncomplicated choreography smoothly moves the ensemble from moment to moment. -- A pleasant evening with an agreeable company, and a disarmingly sophisticated rendition of tick, tick...BOOM!