"Everyone we know wants to do something else." That's a common state of affairs for people in their twenties, trying to balance their dreams with the pressures to pay rent, buy a car, and have enough left for an iPod. That's also the situation Jonathan finds himself in as the lead character in Tick, Tick . . . Boom!, the musical now in the Alma Theater at Cain Park. Written by Jonathan Larson, the creator of the monster rock-musical hit Rent, this is an earlier show that essentially tells the story of Larson on the brink of his 30th birthday in 1990. The title refers to the clock devouring his life as he struggles to succeed in New York as a composer and lyricist.
There is added poignancy to the whole idea of the play in that the real Jonathan died from an aortic aneurysm, at age 34, just as Rent was opening its review performances. This backstory makes one want to love this show, but though there are a few glittering moments, the entire work is a frequently clumsy and often banal portrait of a struggling artist. The three Cain Park actors spill over with relentless energy and do what they can to kick this musical hodgepodge to life, but ultimately, it's a lost cause.
Jonathan, as the main character and narrator, is in rehearsals for a workshop performance of his show, Superbia, while also trying to keep his girlfriend, Susan, happy and dealing with mixed envy of his suddenly successful gay friend Michael. The songs Larson writes to explain these situations feel forced, laboring to describe situations and characters that should just evolve. Thus, the third ditty in the show is "Johnny Can't Decide," a painfully obvious transliteration of his dueling conflicts. Aside from subject matter, the tunes are a haphazard collection of quasi-rock and pseudo-pop that never catch fire.
There are a couple of happy exceptions, however. As Jonathan and Susan, Patrick Janson and Emily Krieger deliver their battling duet "Therapy" with precise timing and sublime attitude. Also, an ode to drugstore snack cakes, "Sugar," is fun, even if it's entirely beside the point. Janson brings a restless intelligence to Jonathan's self-centered navel-gazing, but he can't quite convey the warmth that this character needs to enlist the audience on his side. Similarly, imposing Fabio Polanco as Michael is not a very huggable fellow, which makes his tragic announcement late in the show come off as theatrically manipulative. But Krieger, who also takes on other small roles, is consistently empathetic and believable, and her performance of the tender ballad "Come to Your Senses" is heartfelt.
Director Victoria Bussert tries to smooth over the gaps in this unpolished material, which may explain why she allows her actors to declaim at full volume so continually. But it doesn't help. No doubt, had Larson lived, he would have revisited this show and cleaned up some obvious flaws, including Jonathan's sappy reminiscences of Michael when they were kids. As Larson learned, it's better to create memories than recite them.