Tick, Tick…BOOM! – Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, New York

ticktick031Tick, Tick…BOOM! continues at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, New York until 18 December.

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩

The tribulations and passion involved in becoming a creator of musical theatre are nakedly and poignantly exposed in Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick…BOOM!, being given a gratifying revival by the Off-Broadway Keen Company.

Larson’s own life could hardly register with more poignancy. In a twist of fate that registers as theatrical legend, this composer, lyricist and book writer of Rent died unexpectedly of an aortic aneurysm ten days before his 36th birthday.

His death came just as Rent, his first work to get a major airing, was beginning previews at the New York Theatre Workshop. The rock musical, of course, went on to become an acclaimed, groundbreaking mega-hit, winning both the 1996 Pulitzer Prize For Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical.

Tick, Tick…BOOM!, which grabs you with the intimacy of its autobiographical revelations, was not produced until after Larson’s death. Larson originally developed the show as a rock monologue, which he performed himself along with a rock band.

Reworked into its present form as a three-actor piece, with playwright David Auburn credited as ‘script consultant’, the show premiered Off-Broadway in 2001 and ran for some seven and a half months. It has had numerous productions both in the US and internationally, including London.

In 2014, the Encores! Off-Center series at New York City Center, celebrating musicals that had their start Off-Broadway, staged a production with none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda playing the leading role.

That leading character is aptly named Jonathan, and as Larson did, he works as a waiter in a diner while trying to make it as a new voice in American musical theatre.

The stresses are many. A workshop performance of his musical called Superbia is about to go on. He is also just days from turning 30 years old, and he hears time ticking away in his head as it nears the potential explosion of that landmark birthday.

Furthermore, his girlfriend Susan has told him she is about to leave town, while his best friend Michael, who is making big money in the corporate world, keeps urging him to give up the musical theatre dream and go to work with him.

When the showing of Superbia receives plaudits but no production offers, Jonathan falls into despair. However, as his birthday arrives and he is surrounded by supportive friends – especially Michael, who is facing a crisis of his own – Jonathan realises he must continue pursuing what he is meant to do.

The happy ending can seem a little pat or contrived, but the depth of feeling brought to the Keen Company production, directed with verve by Keen’s artistic director Jonathan Silverstein, gives it an emotional charge.

Jonathan is played by Nick Blaemire, and he could hardly bring more appropriate credentials to the role. In addition to being a performer, Blaemire is a songwriter. He co-wrote the musical Glory Days, which after a well-received premiere at a regional theatre in 2008 moved to Broadway, where it had the misfortune to close on opening night after 17 previews, a victim of poor advance ticket sales.

Blaemire brings an ingratiating everyman quality to the role, and he’s vigorously supported by Ciara Renée as Susan and George Salazar as Michael.

Renée and Salazar also adroitly take on a number of other roles within the story, such as Jonathan’s parents and the performers in Superbia. When the three join together in the show’s several upbeat numbers, they make for some truly exhilarating song and dance moments.

Christine O’Grady’s vivacious choreography furthermore provides this intimate musical an expansive aura. With hard-driving accompaniment from the four-piece onstage band, including music director Joey Chancey on piano, the energy level can sometimes feel like a stage-filling chorus is going through their paces in an elaborate production number.

Most importantly, Tick, Tick…BOOM! is a showcase for the versatility of Larson’s musical genius. It ranges from the sweet seductiveness of the love song ‘See Her Smile’ to the rollicking ‘Sunday’, which portrays Jonathan serving his diner customers in an homage to Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George.

Renée is given the opportunity to show off her rock diva talents with the scorching ballad ‘Come to Your Senses’, and Blaemire makes the soul-searching ‘Why’, in which he questions the direction of his life, a truly climactic moment.

There is certainly more than a dollop of navel-gazing in Tick, Tick…BOOM!, but isn’t that the genesis of a lot of memorable art? And in this case, it also makes for a happily entertaining show.

Ron Cohen

* Ciara Renée will play her final performance in the show on 20 November. Beginning 22 November, Lilli Cooper, seen on Broadway in Spring Awakening and Wicked, will take over the role of Susan.

Readers may also be interested in:

Holiday Inn, the New Irving Berlin Musical – Roundabout Theatre Company’s Studio 54, New York – Review.

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