One of the wonders of live theater is that old works can be revived and reinterpreted to respond to changes in culture and society. Often a new directorial approach can make tried-and-true material feel fresh and bracingly new.
No doubt that's what director Bo Fraizer was aiming for with BoHo Theatre's new take on tick, tick...BOOM! According a BoHo Theatre press release, Fraizer has re-imagined this rocking 2001 off-Broadway musical as "a celebration of trans joy, love, and creativity."
tick, tick...BOOM! has had a big cultural-consciousness blowup thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda's acclaimed 2021 Netflix film adaptation. It garnered actor Andrew Garfield his second Academy Award nomination for playing Jonathan Larson, the theater songwriter who tragically died of an aortic aneurism on the brink of his 1996 musical Rent becoming a global phenomenon.
For BoHo's production, Fraizer veered away from strict binaries in casting this musical. All thee of the roles have been opened up to diverse performers who might not have been considered for a commercial production.
tick, tick...BOOM! is an autobiographical Larson work showing the New York songwriter circa 1990 toiling away on an original sci-fi musical called Superbia. Facing down his 30th birthday, Larson (Alec PhanHe/They) is just scraping by while maintaining a fraying romantic relationship with the dancer Susan (Luke HalpernThey/He/She). Larson also navigates income shifts amid his long-term friendship with Michael (Crystal ClarosThey/He/She), a gay buddy who is thriving in the corporate world.
Fraizer's casting shakeup is fine, since BoHo's tick, tick...BOOM! is staged largely as a presentational mini-rock concert (and since Halpern and Claros also play several other minor characters). After all, theatergoers nowadays should be used to unconventional casting with America's founding fathers diversely depicted in musicals like Hamilton and the recent Broadway revival of 1776 that comes touring to Chicago in February.
And there's no doubt about the strong vocal talents of the castsave for one or two wayward pitches on opening night from Phan and Halpern. Claros also possess an operatic range which helps power the vocal dynamism of BoHo's tick, tick...BOOM!
But there is a degree of acting chemistry missing among the cast. I would have liked to have seen more of a personal spark among the ensemble in getting across the intimate shared histories of the characters.
For tick, tick...BOOM!, set designer Bek Lambrecht and lighting designer Piper Kirchhofer are great at creating a rock concert setting complete with scaffolding and equipment storage boxes. The elevated center-stage platform particularly showcases the amazing rock band led by music director Harper Caruso.
Fraizer and Lambrecht also incorporate transgender symbols as dominant onstage visuals all over the stage. These symbols are not only a constant reminder of Fraizer's trans-centered approach to staging tick, tick...BOOM!, but can also spur audiences to be aware of the severe dearth of stage works centered around transgender characters.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch has recently become a social media minefield about who is allowed to play the title role, while BoHo probably doesn't have the competitive cheerleader connections to mount Bring it On (the Broadway stage adaptation of the film features a likely trans supporting character).
And BoHo likely isn't in the business of producing a chamber opera like As One. This 2014 work about a transgender person's transition by lesbian composer Laura Kaiminsky in collaboration with trans artist Kimberly Reed and gay librettist Mark Campell was seen locally in 2017 by Chicago Fringe Opera at the Center on Halsted.
And based upon the title alone, I'm sure no theater company will dare revive David Hare's flop 1987 off-Broadway musical The Knife. That critically panned theater footnote starred Mandy Patinkin as a Brit pursuing gender reassignment surgery.
So, until new musicals emerge by trans creators featuring trans characters, existing stage works will likely be reinterpreted to be much more inclusive. Larson may not have written tick, tick...BOOM! with transgender characters in mind, but BoHo is making a case that they shouldn't be excluded from the musical, either.