Musical Review









Notes from New York


Book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson

Directed by Hannah Chissick

Musical Director Torquil Munro

Duchess Theatre

13 – 17 May 2009





A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


This rather low-key, singularly pleasing production is, by no means, flawless, but somehow, that seems fitting, given its subject matter. Its autobiographical dynamics centre on a young composer, Jonathan Larson himself, and his struggle for recognition amid the post Regan competiveness of the 1990’s New York musical theatre scene.  As the story begins, Larson has just completed a musical inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, Superbia, of which he is very proud, and this “rock monologue” as it was termed in 1991, focuses on the before and after periods surrounding the showcase of that potential production, which was well received by those in attendance, including Larson’s mentor, Stephen Sondheim. However, much to Larson’s frustration, the show was never fully staged. tick...tick...BOOM l also follows the highs and lows of the composer’s fluctuating relationship with his girlfriend of two years, Susan and his best friend Michael, a talented actor turned marketing executive who, much to his friend’s chagrin, has enthusiastically bought into the notion of taking his own financial bite out of the Big Apple.

There are few props or stage settings for tick...tick...BOOM and given its character driven narrative, it doesn’t really need much in the way of such things to make it work. All of the production’s performers are highly trained and very skilled and that is in evidence here.  Paul Keating leads the way as Jonathan, exuding intermingled anger and longing. There are some very genuine moments in Keating’s performance and I anticipate seeing him more and more frequently in future on progressively larger stages. Leon Lopez as Michael, the childhood friend Jonathan came to New York with is another hard-working performer, whose energetic style serves him well in his role of a go-getter who’s unknowingly lost the plot. But it was Julie Atherton as Susan who garnered the most applause from what appeared to be a built in fan base in the audience. Atherton also stars in the other production comprising Notes from New York – Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. That said, spontaneous bursts of applause followed each and every number in this show.

If the pace of the tick...tick...BOOM seems a tad rushed, it may simply be because in the ‘90’s, in the aftermath of Thatcherism and Reganomics, here, in the U.K. and especially in the U.S., under the dubious auspices of George Bush senior, many people were, admittedly, caught up in the midst of an intensely snatch and grab era, as Jonathan’s character intermittently points out. Larson also brings out some of that self-serving ethos via the growing divides between him and his friend Michael who blindly forgets the reason he came to New York in the first place, in favour of his new-found pursuit of the almighty buck.

Backing for the songs of the show, which are narrative in nature and a blending of rock and pop incorporated with various other musical elements, as conducted by Torquil Munro, is capably provided by Dan Bowtell on guitar, Phil Laughlin on bass and Andy Bibb on drums who are offstage throughout the performance. However, although the trio is very effective, the musicians would do well to double-check how their volume is perceived from the audience, for at times, they nearly threatened to drown out the singing.

This may not be Larson’s greatest musical, but as a piece of theatre history, it is invaluable. As one of the West End’s more intimate theatres, the Duchess is the perfect venue to host such a personal show and judging by the great bursts of laughter whenever such things as invisible agents, high rents or years spent working for their art in vain were mentioned, there were many musical/theatre practioners in the audience, not all of them youngsters.

Larson, went on to compose the acclaimed rock musical Rent, based on his own  experiences as an impoverished resident of New York, with a structure loosely borrowed from La Boheme, reflecting on some of its characters, but interjecting contemporary themes such as multiculturalism, AIDS and homophobia.  As fate would have it, Larson died suddenly at the age of thirty-five, on the eve of the off-Broadway opening of Rent and in the aftermath of his death, the show was quickly advanced to Broadway and posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as many other coveted prizes. Perhaps even more sadly, since Larson’s untimely death a multitude of productions of Rent have been more or less endlessly staged around the world, many of them, probably about as far from the author’s original intent as could be imagined. No doubt, budget staging versus dreams of quickly amassed wealth at the thought of such a revival have tempted many an unscrupulous producer. However, there’s still no denying that had he lived, Jonathan Larson may have eventually given his illustrious mentor Stephen Sondheim some stiff competition.



Notes from New York at the Duchess Theatre

The Last 5 Years

Wed 6 - Sun 10 May 2009

tick... tick... BOOM!

Wed 13 - Sun 17 May 2009
Wed - Fri 20.00, Sat - Sun 16.00 & 20.00

£30.00, £20.00, £10.00

Both Show Season Ticket £50.00

Groups 8+ £22.50

Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, London WC2

Box Office:

0844 811 0052 (24 hrs)





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