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Book, Music, Lyrics: Jonathon Larson Director: Jerry Dixon Musical Director: Edward G. Robinson Stage Manager: Matthew G. Marholin Lighting Designer: Gregory Bloxham Script Consultant: David Auburn Producer: Ng Chin Han Cast: Christian Campbell, Jerry Dixon and Nicole Snelson
Tick, Tick...BOOM! was murdered by bad tech. That's the one explanation I can find for how a lauded musical with such a professional cast could have sounded so horribly amateur on its second night.
I'd been looking forward to this show for two main reasons. First of all, I adored the sheer energy and taboo of Jonathan Larson's Rent back in the 90s, a rock musical made all the more precious by the fact that the young composer had died a day before the final dress rehearsal. Tick, Tick...BOOM! was one of Larson's earlier musicals, an intensely autobiographical work that never made it to Broadway in his lifetime. I'd known it couldn't be as amazing as Rent, but I'd heard good things about the quality of its songs and its different thematic focus.
Second, I was thrilled that after years of watching cloned Broadway productions by touring drama companies, we were finally in for a show put on by a more or less genuinely New York cast. Jerry Dixon was an alumnus of the original Broadway run, while Christian Campbell and Nicole Snelson were part of the original team that toured American cities, with Campbell also chosen to play the lead role during the show's premiere season in the West End. I mean, Jiminy Cricket - it felt like we were being treated like a real international city of the arts, thanks to Fiction Farm director Ng Chin Han's personal connections with the cast.
But ultimately, neither my hope for a solid musical nor my sincere expectation of a solid performance was satisfied. Tick, Tick... BOOM! isn't quite "Rent with worse songs", as the much-maligned Straits Times (Singapore) reporter Hong Xinyi called it, but it does cover much the same ground, zooming in specifically on the individual crisis of being tempted as an artist to sell out your dream for a corporate job. Specifically, the protagonist John is concerned about the prospect of having outlived expectations of being a "promising young composer" as he counts down the days of the week to his 30th birthday. And while I, being part of a traditionally younger black-box indie audience, was able to empathise immensely with this, I noticed that the whole affair didn't quite resonate with the cufflink crowd who tend to turn up for an HSBC-sponsored musical.
As an autobiographical piece, the show wavers between touching honesty and self-indulgence. Quiet, contemplative songs tended to work extremely well - Johnny Can't Decide and Why were powerful, evocative explorations of emotional crises, allowing the voices of the small cast to take over the large proscenium stage. But a few other songs were just noisy and puzzlingly irrelevant - Green Green Dress and Sugar were rock odes to favorite objects with little justification for their presence.
The motivation for these songs, however, was of little consequence compared to their horrendously unprofessional delivery. 30/90, the opening song, was replete with clever banter and jaunty metaphors - none of which the audience was able to hear. The over-amplified band music simply drowned out the actors' voices, so that we lost both melody and lyrics. This happened in the case of every loud rock number - eight out of the fourteen songs, to be exact - and by the third time it happened, one just stopped trying to eke out any wit from the dumb-show happening onstage.
As if this wasn't enough, several pieces suffered sound distortion. The most painful example of this occurred when Snelson delivered what was intended to be the climactic diva-song of the evening - Come to Your Senses. Every time she crescendoed, her voice came out grotesquely warped and harsh - and she somehow could not tell that her voice was being thus abused. Had she gone deaf, or was the sound system rigged so badly that she was unable to hear herself sing? I really don't know - I'm hoping it was merely a temporary tech issue they'd fixed by the weekend. Otherwise, people paid good money to spend Saturday night buggering their ears.
It sounds like I'm rejecting the possibility that the musical problems were the fault of the actors, like I believe that this foreign talent was incapable of sin. I'm not absolving them of fault - at junctures, I really didn't believe they were putting in the energy that their characters deserved. Dixon, serving in double capacity as director and actor, also seemed to have made some poor stagecraft decisions, failing to truly animate the large theater with the cast of three, and also throwing in a pointless local reference to "bakuteh and kaya toast" into a New York deli scene.
Nonetheless, I find it difficult to accept that such an established group of professional musical performers could have ruined the musical dimension of the play so immensely. I am literally unable to give a considered appraisal of the rock components of the musical score itself because I spent those portions of the performance wincing. Which brings me to the moment of profound embarrassment: was Singapore to blame for organizing this event so badly that we could make even A-list Broadway singers sound bad? Are we that much of a trash-hole?
Otherwise, it was a good thing that Larson's libretto was there to save the day, whenever it was audible. The play was packed with killer one-liners, evoking that good old smart-aleck voice that made Rent so edgy. As a straight play, where actors had to play multiple personalities and mime the entirety of Manhattan with meager props onstage, this worked.
I'm not out to malign techies, who are a valuable and underappreciated pool of people who're never thanked when stuff goes right. So like a kindergarten teacher, I'm going to draw a universal moral out of this - we can't depend on the prior fame of our imports when we're investing in a show; not in the reputation of the author of the play nor in the high standards of the performers involved. Some other, less well-attended part of the dramatic process at home can reach in and wreck the production. So let's not put our trust in Broadway - they're only half the picture. We'll also have to depend on ourselves.
Written by Ng Yi-Sheng. The review first appeared in The Flying Inkpot . Reproduced with permission.