At the most emotionally crucial juncture of Jonathan Larson's "tick, tick...BOOM!" on Thursday night, a thunderously powerful hail storm rained down on the metallic roof of Stage 773.
That would be less than ideal, you might think, for a three-person musical in an intimate theater that does not have the best sound system in the world. But Adrian Aguilar, the young but Broadway-level talent playing the central character and authorial alter-ego, stared up at the heavenly assault, breathed in all that physical noise and emotional disruption and then unleashed it while singing at the keyboard. It was, to say the least, an intensely arresting moment, and it typified what director Adam Pelty's richly thought-out production for Porchlight Music Theatre does best: It succeeds in making this small and very personal show about rather more than it first seems.
Although it was produced as a Broadway tour and, you might argue, was a precursor to such self-aware pieces as "[title of show]," which opens at Northlight Theatre next week, "tick, tick" is a simple, 90-minute show with a familiar narrative about a young man turning 30 and worrying about what people in the punishing world of the performing arts at that seemingly terrifying precipice tend to worry about: Will my career ever get going? Can I make it work with my girlfriend? Isn't it funny how my less-talented friends in the corporate world seem to have so much more money? It's a little snapshot of the struggling life of a composer trying to get to Broadway. But unlike, say, television's "Smash," of which it will perhaps put you briefly and painfully in mind, it is searingly honest, frank, and unabashedly personal. And several of the songs, especially "Why" and "Louder than Words," soar. But it is a small canvas. Larson, who died in 1996, was just writing about himself at a particular moment.
But "tick, tick" is now (gulp) a period piece. And Pelty, with the help of set designer Ann Davis and videographers Anna Henson and Rasean Davonte Johnson, who have put together one of the best video-oriented designs I've ever seen off-Loop, carefully play up the way life has changed, and not changed, since 1990. Despite the technology of the setting, it is a non-digital world for the characters, of course. The phones have cords and answering machines and there's empty manuscript paper to haunt a young and blocked composer. "What if you turn 30 and nothing's changed?" Aguilar's Jon asks at one point. Tough, but not quite as rough as turning 40 and finding that everything has changed. But then Jon can't yet know that, which is one of Larson's most poignant points.
Aguilar is well supported by Jenny Guse, who plays his girlfriend Susan, among other roles, and who is both a legitimate dancer well used by Pelty and an engagingly sensual presence and promising singer. Bear Bellinger, who plays Michael, Jon's best friend, is too tentative in some spots, but in the scenes when his performance kicks in, it does so with a good thrust. Diana Lawrence's game-for-anything band plays the minor roles and the score, very well.
This particular piece, deservedly, has fervent followers and this generally well-sung and honestly expressed production will come with quite an emotional kick for Larson fans. Pelty and his designers use their admirably subtle digital palette to sweep, just a little, backward and forward in time, showing how we all spark and fizzle in our moment.
When: Through June 10
Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $38 at 773-327-5252 and stage773.com or porchlightmusictheatre.org