Ticky Ticky Tock... Please Make it Stop! by Matthew Murray

    Macao0512.jpgChocolate. Opium. Pancakes. Name the most personally destructive substance you can think of, the one thing that most completely paralyzes your self-control and sends you into sputtering paroxysms of frantic gibbering the words, "Just... once... more." Now imagine it in musical form, sung seven times in rapid succession, with only brief respites in between to grant you a few seconds of peace before the next caressingly torturous incarnation starts. This is the closest earthly description that can be applied to what just might be the cruelest musical theatre song of all time: "Ticky Ticky Tock."

    Perhaps the most mind-frying thing about this number, the engrossingly endless finale of the 2007 Off-Broadway musical Adrift in Macao, is that it's also one of the (intentionally) stupidest songs ever written. Peter Melnick's nightclub-nudging tune is the musical equivalent of the clink-clank-clash of a slot machine paying off, while Christopher Durang's lyric all but mocks your ability to resist its undulating charms with lyrics like: "Ticky ticky tocky Bangkok / What a place and what a city / Ticky ticky tocky knock knock / Who is there and do you think I'm pretty?" I'll spare you the rest. Suffice it to say, this song, which has been eating away at New York theatre freaks' brains since early 2007, when Adrift in Macao opened at Primary Stages, is now the crowning jewel of—or the best reason to avoid—the just-released cast recording of that production.

    Whether you'll find the rest of this disc as worthy of repeated listening depends a great deal on your tolerance for spoof—and your ability to fill in the dramatic blanks between the tracks. This film noir parody (for which Durang wrote the book) played riotously, if loosely, onstage, with its smoky, shot-spilling songs punctuating the soft-boiled tale of Americans tangling with a mysterious force on the mysterious streets of exotic Macao. But because so much of the show's charm in the theater depended on Durang's well-demonstrated knowledge and uprooting of the movie genre's structures, tropes, and clichés, listening to this recording gives a markedly unbalanced impression of how quirkily charming the show really was. What's left is a collection of meandering songs that, while superbly performed, can't tell the story on their own, and don't satisfy quite enough to make up for that deficit.

    So there are too many one-joke numbers stretched to untenable length: "In a Foreign City" for the beautiful singer Lureena Jones (Rachel de Benedet) stranded in Macao; "Grumpy Mood," sung by the disgruntled American expatriate Mitch (Alan Campbell) to the same tune (and, in a particularly glaring act of comic desperation, borrowing a lyric); "Rick's Song," for the club owner Rick Shaw, or rather the actor (Will Swenson) playing him, who doesn't have a solo elsewhere and is dying to sing; and "Tempura's Song" and "I'm Actually Irish" for the narrow-eyed, pidgin-speaking sidekick stereotype (a full-throttle Orville Mendoza, far better than the material demands) no Asian-themed simmering stew would be without.

    In the remaining numbers, however, Melnick (Richard Rodgers's "other" grandson, who's at least as deserving of reverent, production-focused attention as Adam Guettel) and Durang unleash their talents in more satisfying—and vaguely more challenging—ways. Two performance numbers, the improvisational-romantic "Pretty Moon Over Macao" for Lureena and the bump-and-grind "Mambo Malaysian" for the spiteful chanteuse Corinna she ousts (the always-hilarious Michele Ragusa), become a quodlibet of surprisingly humorous complexity. The title song, for Mitch, Lureena, and Corinna, is the kind of purposeful, rambling rouser that always sounds a lot easier to pull off than it actually is. Lureena's belty, hand-waving farewell tune "So Long" is a legitimate solo showstopper that forgoes comedy in favor of attacking the (gasp) plot head on, while "Sparks" for Mitch and Lureena is a hunk of serious piano-drenched flirtation that could hold its own as a cabaret standard. The performers are all wonderful, with de Benedet inching ahead of the others because her tight-lipped delivery and piercing comic intensity that never gives anything away early.

    Whether any of these pleasures are enough to sell Adrift in Macao to the average listener who didn't see the show is another matter. And one that, as soon as you hit that last track, ceases to matter much: "Ticky Ticky Tock" exists in its own little perpetual-motion universe, and escaping its vortex isn't easy. Yet it's ultimately the perfect representation of the flawed-but-fun show and score it concludes: brilliant, inane, and maddening, both annoyingly familiar and unlike anything else you've heard in a good, long while.

    Saturday, May 10, 2008 at 8:59 AM | Item Link

    The last five columns written by Matthew Murray:

    09/01/2008: By the Book

    06/27/2008: An Uncomfortable Visit to the Boundaries of Show Business

    05/29/2008: Revisiting Life on that Wicked—and Wonderful—Stage

    05/10/2008: Ticky Ticky Tock... Please Make it Stop!

    05/06/2008: Welcome Playbill Radio listeners!

    For a listing of all features written by Matthew, click here.