MANILA — Jef Flores is the real deal.
Last year, he proved his mettle as an actor in two critically received performances last year in “4000 Miles” and his Gawad Buhay-winning turn in “This is Our Youth.” Now, Flores has turned his focus on musical theater.
After his charming performance as Jesus in “Godspell” with an all-star cast, he now anchors 9 Works Theatrical’s low-key production of “Tick, Tick … Boom!” which opens Saturday at RCBC Plaza in Makati, playing a struggling composer at a crossroads ahead of his 30th birthday.
An autobiographical play based on a one-man show Jonathan Larson was working on before he unleashed “Rent” on Broadway in 1996, “Tick Tick … Boom!” was produced posthumously in 2001 with some retooling from award-winning playwright David Auburn, five years after Larson’s death.
It was first presented in Manila shortly after its Off-Broadway debut with Jett Pangan, Bituin Escalante and Michael de Mesa.
This new staging by 9 Works is its way of commemorating the 20th anniversary of “Rent,” which was the theater company’s first-ever production.
It’s difficult to see “Tick, Tick … Boom!” without making mental connections to “Rent.” Listen closely and you could hear musical patterns, styles and even actual melodies from “Rent.” Watching this 90-minute, three-character musical, particularly back in 2001, we get a glimpse into Larson’s early promise as a composer, as well as his fears and struggles before finally achieving his dreams.
Fifteen years after its debut, however, has allowed “Tick, Tick … Boom!” to be appreciated on its own. Despite the setting (it’s difficult to deviate from the period when your opening song talks about turning 30 in 1990), it tackles a dilemma faced by young artists, whether composers, writers, painters or performers, grappling about the realities of making a living while pursuing one’s passion.
“I want to sit down right now at my piano and write a song that people will listen to and remember, and do the same thing every morning for the rest of my life,” Jon, Larson’s stand-in in “Tick, Tick … Boom!”, muses in “Johnny Can’t Decide.”
His best friend Michael and girlfriend Susan want to support his dreams, although they themselves have given up on their artistic ambitions. Susan, a dancer, wants to get married, get out of New York and settle in New England. Michael, a wannabe actor, has joined the corporate world and bought a BMW. And both hope to convince Michael to join them.
Flores, a self-confessed aspiring composer, imbues Jon with a more laid-back, introspective personality, which goes well with his pleasant and light vocal delivery. This almost shy and reserved quality made the musical’s sadder moments shine like “Real Life,” “See Her Smile” and his big solo moment, “Why.”
But while “Tick, Tick … Boom!” further affirms Flores’ status as theater’s leading man du jour, it also, more importantly, provides a worthy vehicle for Tanya Manalang to show off her awesome talent post-“Miss Saigon.”
Before playing Kim in the West End revival of the Vietnam War musical for two years, Manalang appeared in supporting roles likes Liesl in “The Sound of Music” and Tuptim in “The King and I.”
Here, Manalang gets to sing the show-stopping number “Come to My Senses,” which requires both power and vulnerability, and she delivers.
Another “Miss Saigon” alum Ariel Reonal also gives a breakthrough performance that shows comic timing and effortless vocals.
Director Robbie Guevara gave this particular staging a poignancy that’s almost reverential. There’s almost a deliberate effort to keep the musical intimate in contrast to the bombast of his last production “American Idiot.”
Guevara and Flores make “Tick, Tick … Boom!” a touching reminder to theater fans of the genius of Larson. It’s certainly an apt way to mark a Broadway milestone.
“Tick, Tick … Boom!” runs for until October 23 at the RCBC Plaza, Makati City.