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Theatre in Review: Tick, Tick...Boom! (Keen Company at Theatre Row)

George Salazar, Nick Blaemire, Ciara Renée. Photo Carol Rosegg

Johnny, we hardly knew ye: One of the most stunning theatre stories of our time is that of the songwriter/librettist Jonathan Larson, who for years labored in obscurity, then died suddenly the night before the first preview, at New York Theatre Workshop, of his musical Rent. He was 35; he never knew that he had created the blockbuster musical of the decade, instantly achieving a permanent place in theatre history. The other night, seeing Tick, Tick...Boom!, I was reminded again of this terrible loss to the theatre.

Because he was still young and Rent was his breakthrough work, Larson left behind the thinnest of catalogues; aside from Rent, the main item was a solo autobiographical piece, variously named Boho Days, 30/90, and Tick, Tick...Boom! As the evolution of the title suggests, the script went through several iterations; after Larson's death, a new version, expanding it from one to three characters, was created by the playwright David Auburn. It retains the original's autobiographical roots: The action covers a few days in the life of a playwright and songwriter named Jonathan, who, as he turns 30, finds himself on the brink -- he is about to present a workshop of a science-fiction rock musical, which everyone loves even as they insist it is entirely unsuitable for Broadway. His best friend and roommate, Michael, once an actor and now a marketing executive, is moving out of their East Village slum apartment. And Jonathan's girlfriend, Susan, a dancer, is making noises about starting over as a dance teacher in New England.

How Jonathan comes to terms with his "pre-midlife crisis" makes up the slender book of Tick, Tick...Boom! It could have been an exercise in solipsism -- the problems of writers are rarely as interesting as they think they are. But Tick, Tick...Boom! is a precise exploration of that moment in the life of any artist when he or she must decide whether to commit to the work no matter what may come. It's time to fish or cut bait, a choice Johnny must face without any significant accomplishments to point to, and possibly without the support of the two people he loves most.

Larson's songs, which are at least as good as anything he wrote for Rent, are full of driving energy combined with melancholy introspection; the discordant opening chords of the first number, "30/90," strike a note of conflict and irresolution, accompanied by lyrics that express Johnny's rising panic over his dreaded birthday. ("Years are getting shorter/Lines on your face are getting longer/Feel like you're treading water/But the rip tide's getting stronger"). If one ever had any doubts about Larson's technical skills, they are dispelled by "Sunday," a riotous parody of a certain Stephen Sondheim number, detailing Jonathan's soul-killing job as a waiter. "Therapy" is a witty exploration, set to a country-western beat, of Jonathan and Susan's passive-aggressive fighting style. "See Her Smile" tenderly expresses Jonathan's growing recognition that Susan is slipping through his fingers.

Jonathan Silverstein's production is alert to the material's constantly shifting moods, by turns sassy, satirical, and heartbreaking. Nick Blaemire, himself a songwriter as well as an actor, is ideal casting as Jonathan, a jack-in-the-box case of nerves, his self-obsession ameliorated by his devotion to both Susan and Michael as well as his heartfelt dedication to his art. Ciara Renée is appealing as Susan, who no longer wants to fight her way through another Manhattan day; she also scores in several other roles, including Jonathan's grandly phony agent and a fiercely controlling marketing executive who speaks entirely in buzzwords. She pretty much stops the show as the star of Jonathan's workshop, delivering "Come to Your Senses," from Larson's unproduced musical Superbia, a powerful ballad that also comments tellingly on Jonathan and Susan's relationship. (The gifted Lilli Cooper steps into the role as of November 20.) As Michael, George Salazar has a nice chemistry with Blaemire and he handles deftly, and without mawkishness, the revelation of the secret that explains Michael's newly materialistic attitude -- and his drift away from Jonathan.

Steven Kemp's set features a mostly bare stage dominated by a ceiling piece representing an apartment house hallway covered with graffiti, evoking Jonathan's gritty downtown existence. Josh Bradford's lighting reshapes the space as needed, creating a moonlight wash for a scene on the roof of Jonathan's building; a hard, bright look for the lobby of Michael's office building; and some carefully deployed splashes of saturated color for Jonathan's workshop production. Jennifer Paar's costumes include a sexy, body-hugging green velvet dress for Susan, which is enshrined in one of the musical numbers. Julian Evans' sound design preserves a fairly solid balance between the three voices and four-person band (piano, percussion, guitar, and bass.)

Tick, Tick...Boom! is a chamber piece but it packs an emotional punch that many bigger musicals might envy. This is especially so in the two climactic numbers. In "Why," Jonathan, feeling deserted by his loved ones, looks back on his school days, recalling how he and Michael fell in love with the theatre, a memory now deeply shadowed by what he now knows about his best friend. This is followed by one of Larson's finest songs, "Louder Than Words," with a lyric ("Cages or wings? Which do you prefer? Ask the birds") that reaffirms that the only life worth living is spent doing what one loves. Tick, Tick...Boom! is that rarest of things, a musical with a soul, our awareness of Larson's real-life fate only deepening its message of carpe diem. As the characters in Rent repeatedly sing, "No day but today." -- David Barbour

(28 October 2016)

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