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Rent is the musical for which the late Jonathan Larson will always be remembered. But it’s actually the chamber musical Tick, Tick… Boom! that is more reflective of his tragically shortened life. Larson performed it on-and-off as a solo show for several years prior to the debut of his Tony- and Pulitzer-winning musical; in 2001, five years after his death, a revised, three-character version, written by playwright David Auburn (Proof), premiered in an off-Broadway production starring Raul Esparza. The piece is now being given an off-Broadway revival by the Keen Company in which its rough edges have been lovingly kept intact.
The nakedly autobiographical musical, set in 1990, centers on Jonathan (Nick Blaemire), an aspiring theater composer who has been toiling on his magnum opus, Superbia, for five years. Struggling to make ends meet by working as a waiter in a diner, he looks on enviously at the lavish lifestyle of his friend Michael (George Salazar) who works on Madison Avenue. And his relationship with his beautiful dancer girlfriend Susan (Ciara Renee, of The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow) becomes threatened by her desire to move to New England, where they could live a normal life and even own a dishwasher.
The title refers to the mounting anxiety Jonathan feels about turning 30, with no success to show for it; the show is a moving and amusing portrait of a struggling artist who increasingly comes to doubt himself. At one particularly low point, Jonathan takes up Michael’s offer to work at his advertising agency, with disastrous results. A workshop production of his musical doesn’t generate any offers. And Susan informs him that she’s taken a job in Massachusetts and may move there permanently.
While Auburn’s cobbled-together book is little more than serviceable, Larson’s pop-rock score is quite a bit more. No, there’s nothing here that compares to such classic numbers from Rent as “Seasons of Love” or “La Vie Boheme.” But the songs are consistently tuneful and peppy, enlivened by witty lyrics often reminiscent of Jonathan’s idol, Stephen Sondheim. One number, “Sunday,” about the boorish patrons of the diner in which Jonathan works, is a direct homage to Sunday in the Park With George, and Sondheim himself makes a heartwarming, indirect cameo. Other highlights are “No More,” a humorous ode to materialism, and “Come to Your Senses,” sung in showstopping fashion by Renee.
Blaemire, bearing no small resemblance to his character’s real-life inspiration, is endearingly vulnerable and funny as the beleaguered Jonathan, while Salazar and Renee offer solid support as Michael and Susan, as well as in a variety of smaller roles. The modest production, efficiently directed by Jonathan Silverstein, is presented on a mostly bare stage, with the performers accompanied by a terrific four-person band.
This version of the show lacks the impact of the original production or the 2014 City Center Encores! rendition starring a pre-Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom, Jr., but it works quite well on its own terms. And while no one will argue that Tick, Tick… Boom! is a major musical, it serves as a haunting reminder of a significant talent who was lost to us far too soon.
Venue: Acorn Theater, New York
Cast: Nick Blaemire, George Salazar, Ciara Renee
Book, music & lyrics: Jonathan Larson
Script consultant: David Auburn
Director: Jonathan Silverstein
Set designer: Steven Kemp
Costume designer: Jennifer Paar
Lighting designer: Josh Bradford
Sound designer: Julian Evans
Choreographer: Christine O’Grady
Musical director: Joey Chancey
Presented by The Keen Company
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