Redmond, WA 98052
I promised myself that when I write an actual review – not a commentary inspired by a show, but a full-on review – I’d do it while there’s still time to see the show. Technically, that’s true, in this case, but only by the tiniest of margins – the show closes tomorrow. If you can get a ticket, go. If that wasn’t clear enough: GO.
If you know Jonathan Larson’s work at all, I’ll give 1000:1 odds that it’s for RENT, his multi-Tony-award-winning musical that could definitely fill the role mentioned in this show by Larson as “HAIR for the 90s.” A well-known part of the legend of RENT is that Larson never lived to see it performed before an audience, dying at 35 of an aortic dissection on the morning of the first off-Broadway preview. But the other work of his that has survived and is occasionally, though I think too rarely, performed is this one.
Larson struggled with a musical called SUPERBIA through the 80s. The show, an unauthorized rock musical adaptation of Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, won awards and industry recognition for Larson during its development, but was never fully produced; to deal with the disappointment and push through, Larson put together a “rock monologue” about his experience and his life through the period; originally titled 30/90 (which remains as the title of the opening song), it was eventually renamed tick,tick… BOOM! Performances of this show made producing connections for Larson that helped lead to the development of RENT. After Larson’s death, David Auburn (who wrote and won the drama Pulitzer for PROOF) restructured it into a three-performer work, as it is now performed, and Stephen Oremus arranged the vocals and orchestrated the songs.
I’ve been hoping to see a production of the show for years, but have always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time for it. Now that I’ve seen it, I understand what everyone has seen in it. In many ways, some blatant and some more subtle, it foreshadows many of the themes and techniques of RENT. But it’s a more intimate and personal show – fitting, as it’s autobiography. And because it’s a musical about making musicals, it deals much more directly with that creative process. Larson’s worship of (whisper) Stephen Sondheim is a key element, not just in the plot, but in some musical touches; the song “Sunday” is a spin on the song from SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, only instead of being about art, it’s about… brunch. Starving artists need day jobs, and like many others, Larson’s was as a waiter. (In many ways, Roger’s and Mark’s creative advances and obstacles in RENT are metaphorical stand-ins for Larson’s own.)
As I said, many of the same concerns and themes are here – the boho life vs. selling out, balancing love and art, and the specter of AIDS. It’s interesting how the world changes in five years, too: in 1990 in this show, when AIDS is mentioned – no, not even mentioned, but talked around – it is as a death sentence; while there is some of that in Roger’s need to write “one last song” and in, well, Angel’s death, there is also a survivor’s spirit and, along with it, the “AZT break.”
So, about this production. A three-person show with this much music needs strong singers; a three-person show with this much substance needs strong actors. None of the cast have much if any Seattle stage work on their résumés, but I hope that’s going to change as a result of this show. Adam Minton, as Jon, rocks out when he can, sweetly sings his heart (and yours) out when he needs to, and is utterly believable in the outsized role. Ryan Lile (Michael and others) and Faith Howes (Susan and others) hit the same marks consistently. And Ben Bentler and the rest of the band are with them every step of the way.
One of the most exciting things about SecondStory is its effort to let some of the town’s strongest performers strut their directing stuff. Last season, Billie Wildrick took on KISS OF THE SPIDER-WOMAN and delivered a production that made the show feel as big as it had in houses much larger than SSR’s 78 seats, but benefited from its claustrophobia in its prison setting, while making character dynamics stronger and clearer than I’d seen in those MainStage versions. Here, Jeff Orton takes his turn. As a performer, Orton’s name is at the top of my list when I’m asked to word-associate “fearless” – killer turkey, anyone? Jewish Christian boyband singer? – and his sure directing hand is seen here as well. (A few years back, he also staged a terrific [title of show] for Balagan.) The show is well-staged, kinetic without burying the soul in motion. Orton is directing NEXT TO NORMAL for SSR in February and March, and I’m looking forward to his take on that monster.
The show itself, and the production, are enough of a reason to see it tomorrow. The unfortunate fact that chances to see it are so rare should push you even harder.