On his way to writing ‘Rent’…

Appearing in tick, tick…Boom! are (from left) Christopher Storer as Michael, Jonathan Collura as Jon and Kaitlin Descutner as Susan (photo by Zach Hartley)
Appearing in tick, tick…Boom! are (from left) Christopher Storer as Michael, Jonathan Collura as Jon and Kaitlin Descutner as Susan (photo by Zach Hartley)

By Richard Ades

If you’re a fan of Rent or of rock-based musical theater in general, you’ll want to see tick, tick…Boom! The 1990 work is Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical take on his struggle to establish himself as a composer and lyricist.

If you’re not a fan of either Rent or rock-based musical theater, the show is less of a must-see, but it remains tuneful and pleasant enough to be worthwhile.

Of course, the $64,000 question with any locally produced musical is: Does the cast have enough vocal chops to carry it off? Because, let’s face it, that’s not something you can take for granted.

Happily, though, the answer is a resounding yes. Director Zach Hartley has found three performers who sing like pitch-perfect larks. They also have acting chops, though that’s less of a consideration in a show whose appeal is more historical than dramatic.

Jonathan Collura is personable as Jon, a New York composer who’s sweating his way toward both his 30th birthday and a workshop performance of his latest musical. Kaitlin Descutner is equally appealing as his dancer/girlfriend, Susan, who supplies comfort and support when she’s not kvetching about her desire to live in a less-urban environment.

It would nice if Christopher Storer provided a more grounded portrayal of Michael, Jon’s Bimmer-driving roommate. That might make a last-minute revelation about the character seem less gratuitous. But Storer excels—as does Descutner—in colorful secondary roles.

As for the songs, they range from the lightweight Green Dress to the clever Sunday, a trio that reflects Jon’s (and Larson’s) reverence for Stephen Sondheim. Also Sondheim-like is the flashy Come to Your Senses, which gives Descutner a chance to show off her vocal power.

For the most part, the tunes come in flavors of rock, which Larson helped to introduce to musical theater. Whatever their genre, an onstage band led by musical director Hillary Billups provides stalwart support.

Truthfully, as a piece of theater, tick, tick…Boom! is less than overwhelming. But as a piece of theatrical history, it’s a gem.

Evolution Theatre Company will present tick, tick…Boom! through Aug. 17 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 95 minutes. Tickets are $20-$25, $15 for students and seniors. 614-223-1124, 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

Hoping to spell their way to happiness

Japheal Bondurant as competitor William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Red Generation Photography)
Japheal Bondurant as competitor William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Red Generation Photography)

By Richard Ades

A confession: I was disappointed when I heard CATCO had booked The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for its new season.

That was partly because I’d rather see Columbus’s premier troupe tackle works that aren’t quite so familiar. Mostly, though, it was because I’d seen a touring production come through town several years back and hadn’t fallen in love with it.

But you know what they say about love being better the second time around? Maybe that also applies to this quirky musical. Thanks to CATCO’s personable production, I now love both it and its nerdy characters.

With a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn (Falsettos), Spelling Bee is like a comedic and tuneful version of the 2002 documentary Spellbound. Like the film, it delves into the personalities of the young contestants in an attempt to explain how they became spelling whizzes and why parlaying their skills into victory is so important to them.

It could be that director Steven Anderson’s long submergence in children’s theater has served him well here, because his production’s greatest strength is its ability to turn each of the competitors into a recognizably and lovably eccentric individual.

Early laughs are won by Leaf Coneybear (Patrick Walters), whose behavior is even odder than his helmeted and caped attire. Also attracting our attention is the Korean-American Marcy Park (Nicolette Montana), who only later reveals why she seems annoyed by the whole event.

The richest portrayals are provided by Japheal Bondurant as the plus-sized William Barfee—whose haughtiness could well be both a reflection of his brilliance and a defense against an often-hostile world—and Elisabeth Zimmerman as the lonely Olive Ostrovsky. Played by Zimmerman with a deer-in-the-headlights expression and a lovely voice, Olive reveals the direness of her situation in the show’s most touching number, The I Love You Song.

Also taking part in the competition are Chip Tolentino (James Sargent), whose struggle to repeat last year’s victory is complicated by his dictatorial libido, and Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre (Emily Turner), whose gay fathers encourage her to win at any cost.

Four pre-selected audience members play additional competitors and frequently come in for witty and personalized jibes from the spelling bee’s hosts, Rona Lisa Peretti (Krista Lively-Stauffer) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Ralph E. Scott). Panch, by the way, has many of the show’s funniest lines—which usually follow the question “Can you use it in a sentence?”—and Scott delivers them with deadpan perfection.

The cherry on the show’s comical sundae is Mitch Mahoney (Geoffrey Martin), a scruffy ex-con who was sentenced to perform community service by acting as the competition’s “comfort counselor.”

Michael S. Brewer’s set design captures the look of a school auditorium right down to the cinder-block walls and the “Putnam Piranhas” wall signs. A band led by Matt Clemens is a spirited presence despite being hidden backstage.

With tuneful tunes, heartfelt performances and more laugh-out-loud moments than you can shake a dictionary at, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is simply irresistible.

CATCO will present The Twentieth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee through Aug. 18 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $41 for Thursday and Sunday performances, $45 for Fridays and Saturdays, $11.50 for Wednesday matinees. Student tickets are available for $15 two hours before non-sold-out performances. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.