George Salazar, Ciara Renée, and Nick Blaemire in Jonathan Larson’s “Tick, Tick…BOOM!,” directed by Jonathan Silverstein, at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row through November 20. | CAROL ROSEGG
Everybody knows the tragic backstory of “Rent,” where the show’s 35-year old creator Jonathan Larson died of an aortic aneurysm just hours before the Off-Broadway premiere in 1996.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning, pop-rock musical was hailed as a game-changer, pumping fresh oxygen into Broadway (where it ran for 12 years), and, as Larson intended, brought musical theater to the MTV generation. Several national tours followed, plus a 2005 movie starring much of the original cast. Today, “Rent” remains a juggernaut, with productions all over the globe.
Not so well known is that Larson penned an autobiographical rock monologue titled “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” a couple of years prior to “Rent.” After being reshaped into a three-hander by David Auburn, the spunky tuner was staged Off-Broadway in 2001 at the Jane Street Theatre (fittingly, the same space where “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” got its start).
Jonathan Larson’s durable tuner about grabbing gusto before time runs out
Now the chamber musical is having its first full Off-Broadway revival, courtesy of the Keen Company, playing at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row.
If “La Boheme” was the inspiration for “Rent,” perhaps “Company” was the jumping off point for “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” Like the Sondheim classic, the action unfolds in a series of disconnected vignettes and centers on a rudderless, unmarried guy fretting over a landmark birthday (Jonathan turning 30; Sondheim’s Bobby turning 35) and looking to friends for solace.
The musical is peppered with sly Sondheim references — snippets of librettos and lyrics, a spoof of the song “Sunday” from “Sunday in the Park with George,” and even a cameo voiceover by the legend. Which makes sense since Sondheim was Larson’s idol and occasional mentor in real life.
The zippy, 90-minute piece, set downtown in 1990, finds Jonathan striving to become a successful musical theater composer while moonlighting as a waiter at a local diner (Larson worked at the iconic Moondance Diner on lower Sixth Avenue, long since replaced by a tony hotel). He lives in a dumpy loft on the edge of SoHo with his longtime pal, Michael, who happens to be gay and gave up an acting career to work at a Madison Avenue ad agency (the term “sell-out” surfaces more than once). Jonathan’s relationship with gorgeous girlfriend Susan, a dancer, is coming apart at the seams.
Is it better to persevere or settle? The ticking is getting louder.
Under the assured direction of Jonathan Silverstein, this is an unfussy, stripped-down affair with a minimal set, by Steven Kemp, dominated by a wonderful architectural feature resembling an enormous loft ceiling with skylights, covered in bright graffiti swirls. But it is awkwardly askew, suggesting a “BOOM!” is taking place. The spirited band, led by Joey Chancey, is visibly onstage where it should be. When not in a scene, actors sit on tall stools and guzzle bottled water.
While the choppy book feels a bit simplistic and dated, much of the score is still fresh and vibrant.
When it comes to the demanding role of Jonathan, Nick Blaemire has some mighty big shoes to fill. RaÃºl Esparza (who, as it happens, played Bobby in “Company” on Broadway) originated the role Off-Broadway, and in the Encores! version a couple of years ago, Jonathan was portrayed by none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda.
If Blaemire seems tentative in some of the more raucous sequences, he nails the soulful ballads, like “See Her Smile,” where he laments there’s nothing he can do to make Susan stay. Sadly, he is forced to wear oversized, pleated, rust-colored corduroys that are so hideous it’s distracting.
As Susan, Ciara Renée turns in the standout performance of the evening, adding layers of emotional complexity to what could be a cookie-cutter role. Plus, she delivers some heart-stirring, life-affirming vocals.
George Salazar does his best to believably capture Michael’s ups and downs. One moment Michael is rhapsodizing about his new high-rise apartment with its parquet floors and dishwasher; later he’s disclosing a health crisis.
“I know I’m sick, Jon,” he says. “And I’m not going to get any better.”
Remember, this was before antiretroviral cocktails, when having HIV/ AIDS was seen as virtually a death sentence –– and too often was.
Although it stands solidly on its own, “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” resonates more forcefully when considering Larson’s posthumous triumph with “Rent.” The uncanny prescience of writing a show about following your bliss before time runs out is lost on no one. For Larson, the “boom” turned out to be all too real.
No less extraordinary is that Blaemire himself knows a thing or two about the hardships Larson endured as a promising young composer. He wrote the music and lyrics for “Glory Days,” which premiered on Broadway in 2008. That modest pop musical shuttered the day after it opened — one of the most notorious flops in recent memory.
TICK, TICK…BOOM! | Keen Company | The Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. | Through Nov. 20: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $85-$105 at keencompany.org | 90 mins., with no intermission