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An angsty ‘90s musical is revived for the YOLO generation

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Aug 28, 2023 5:00 am

In its coda number, Louder Than Words, Jonathan Larson’s celebratory inward gaze tick, tick… BOOM! hooks around a question that still resonates: “What does it take to wake up a generation?”

Larson’s character Jon is lamenting about the “complacent,” “stodgy” ‘90s at the time this musical is set, so possibly it’s about his own Gen X’s malaise. But the question has even more resonance today as we face challenges global and artificial, political and personal, viral and deadly. The clock is still very much ticking.

For its first post-pandemic production, 9 Works Theatrical (9WT) chose tick, tick… BOOM! possibly because the surge in theater-going these days is driven by younger audiences, vexed by the same issues of how to reach their pinnacle and check off all their boxes before time runs out.

YOLO: Jon (Jef Flores) urgently composes his life in 9 Works Theatrical’s tick, tick... BOOM!

Jon (Jef Flores) is a fledgling composer living in a small SoHo studio apartment with a bed and Yamaha DX-7 all set up in the same space. His girlfriend Susan (Kayla Rivera) dreams of being a dancer, and they get along okay—except she wants to leave the city and find work elsewhere, and he doesn’t want to leave the lightning-rod nexus of New York City. He’s hoping his latest play—a nod to Larson’s first unproduced musical, Superbia—will get noticed by (gasp!) Stephen Sondheim and backed for production. But mostly he’s in a lather over approaching his 30th birthday (opening number 30/90) without scoring a huge Broadway hit.

His high school friend Michael (Vien King), meanwhile, seems to have all the trappings of material success—a corporate job, a BMW—but also some worrying lesions.

Directed by Robbie Guevara, the three-hander makes smart use of the RCBC auditorium, with a closed-apartment set that seamlessly rolls backwards and forwards, giving our lead a psychological sense of life telescoping around him—and, in one scene, tilting awry like the set of Inception.

Day job: Khalil Ramos (Jon), Vien King and Kayla Rivera in the boardroom.

This is a play mixed and matched with alternates Khalil Ramos (Jon), Reb Atadero (Mike) and Tanya Manalang (Susan) on any given night. On the night I watched, Flores, Rivera and King took on the multiple roles—Jon’s agent, Jon’s dad, café customers and waiters, second love interest Karessa—and there’s something engaging about the economical use of the space and acting talent. It’s a physical play, involving lots of racing around the stage, and at times, pantomiming food service (Sunday) or driving a BMW. It works well because the drama is kept front and center, filtered through the tunnel vision of Jon’s monologues. All this can feel new to new audiences, who have been starved for live theater for quite a stretch now. (It is 9WT’s second staging of this play, with Flores back in the Jon role from the 2016 run.)

Flores nails the Jeff Buckley-baggy attire ‘90s look. He commands central attention throughout with breathless urgency. (A minor gripe: the joint Jon lights up early in the play doesn’t look rolled, it looks like a cigarette with the filter broken off.)

Canadian-born Rivera, meanwhile, is a standout, facing the audience for a solo in Come to Your Senses. King provides ample comic relief from Jon’s frequent rock-fueled monologues, and all three of them blend well in musical numbers such as Johnny Can’t Decide and See Her Smile.

The cast: (back from left) Kayla Rivera, Reb Atadero, Vien King and Tanya Manalang; (front from left) Khalil Ramos and Jef Flores

We are a world eager for fragments of the past to sift through, nostalgic throwbacks to feast on, and tick, tick… BOOM! plugs into that, especially in numbers like Sugar, which identifies the kinds of breakfast cereals Jon’s generation lapped up for inspiration (Cap’n Crunch, Sugar Frosted Flakes), as well as the generation-pegging Twinkie. There’s a lot of fun music here, and the live orchestra helps bring it all home.

Cages or wings?: Pages of the Jonathan Larson score were displayed at the CPR Auditorium lobby.

On the wall of Jon’s studio we see posters for a pair of Sondheim plays (Sunday in the Park with George and Sweeney Todd), and there’s a West Side Story LP tucked into a corner. It’s worth noting how much Larson idolized Sondheim, who had a way of mentoring young songwriters and playwrights, and Larson did, in fact, receive a valedictory phone message from the Broadway titan himself. Sprinkled throughout tick, tick… BOOM! are allusions to Sondheim, whether in the fourth-wall-breaking Sunday (where Jon comments on the types of people who do “brunch” with surgical glee), or the third-person declarations of Johnny Can’t Decide (echoing Lesson #8 from Sunday in the Park with George).

I’m not so sure Larson’s early play carries the same weight as the mature work of Sondheim, which also dealt with metaphysical matters (Finishing the Hat, say). With a play like tick, tick… BOOM! he was clearly trying to cram everything into a single statement about the brevity of life. And of course, Larson died at the age of 36 (from an aortic condition) just as Rent was about to become a huge success, so he didn’t have time to gain any insights into longevity. Time had indeed run out. Yet the fact that this play still hits the stage so vividly is testament enough that he captured the zeitgeist.

Of course, the musical gained a lot of renewed interest after Andrew Garfield took on the Jon role in the critically acclaimed Netflix version last year. As a heads-up to a generation, it’s a fine welcome back to the stage for 9WT and to theater-goers in general.

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tick, tick… BOOM!, presented by 9 Works Theatrical, is extended to Sept. 3 at 4/F RCBC Plaza, Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, Makati City. Contact Ticket2Me, or 0917-5545560 for tickets.