Posthumously showered with acclaim soon after his tragic death at the age of 35, Jonathan Larson had written other things before Rent.
For several years in the 1980’s, Larson labored over Superbia, a musical adaptation of George Orwell’s novel 1984. Despite the show winning awards and having had workshop and concert presentations, it did not get fully produced commercially. It did catch the attention of Stephen Sondheim who became a mentor to Larson.
Out of this frustration, Larson in 1991 began performing a rock monologue about his life and stalled career called 30/90, as it was set in 1990 as he turned thirty. Later it was retitled Boho Days and then tick, tick… BOOM!, as a chief device is the ticking of a clock. The show was performed for short engagements at several New York City venues and ignited Larson’s career, leading to the creation and presentation of Rent Off-Broadway in 1996.
After Larson’s death, playwright David Auburn reworked it into a conventional three-person show with a band. This version premiered Off-Broadway in 2001 starring Raúl Esparza. Following that successful run it has been performed internationally. It is now being given its first Off Broadway revival by Keen Company.
Auburn’s treatment has Jonathan, a promising and impoverished composer and lyricist fretting over the upcoming workshop of his musical, Superbia, as he turns thirty. He’s from White Plains, has supportive parents, works as a waiter, and lives in the Soho area. His girlfriend Susan is a dancer. Michael, his gay best friend since childhood and roommate, has been a promising actor who gave that up for a corporate career.
It’s all a mildly engaging though trite take on the travails of struggling artists with references to that specific era such as gentrification and AIDS.
This narrative framework showcases Larson’s catchy rock/pop score that is well-crafted but without really any real standout songs. Knowing of his adoration of Sondheim, it is fascinating to hear recognizable influences in some of the melodies and a number of the intricate and witty lyrics.
The bespectacled and charmingly nerdy Nick Blaemire is a very fine Jonathan with his wonderful everyman quality. Mr. Blaemire makes up for a lack of innate charisma with his exceptional acting and singing talents.
Ciara Renée as Susan and George Salazar as Michael are very appealing. Ms. Renée and Mr. Salazar also have the Herculean task of acting out a multitude of other characters such as the parents, an agent, co-workers, and restaurant customers. They’re called upon to frequently and speedily morph from one to another. Understandably due to the material, the characterizations are often superficial.
Director Jonathan Silverstein has the cast relatively still for the emotional portions and swiftly moving around the piano and furniture that are on wheels for excellent effects. The band is situated in the back of the stage in view of the audience and interacts at times as characters in the show. Mr. Silverstein’s staging is overall accomplished.
Christine O’Grady’s choreography is a pleasing combination of frenetic and graceful. Joey Chancey’s modulated musical direction along with Julian Evans’ perfectly balanced sound design conveys the score’s rawness and soft-spoken aspects.
Scenic designer Steve Kemp provides basic furniture on wheels that allows for fluid transitions between scenes and locations on the otherwise bare stage. The lighting design by Josh Bradford aesthetically shifts from subtle to glaring, complementing the rock and standard musical theater tones of the piece. Jennifer Paar’s simple costume design authentically depicts the characters.
At 90 minutes, Tick, Tick… BOOM! drags at times despite the best efforts of everyone involved but ultimately it is a spirited rendition of Jonathan Larson’s vision.
Tick, Tick… BOOM! (extended through December 18, 2016)
The Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street,
For tickets, call 800-447-7400 or visit http://www.keencompany.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission