By Donna Herman
The revival of Jonathan Larson’s “Tick, Tick…Boom!” by the Keen Company at the Theater Row Acorn Theater, is a charming, touching, relevant & well-performed piece of musical theater. An early autobiographical work by the late composer of the Pulitzer and Tony winning author of “Rent,” “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is the story of a struggling musical theater composer named, not coincidentally, Jonathan (Nick Blaemire). A constant ticking is both an opening sound effect and the sound he’s hearing in his head. Jon confesses in his opening monologue and song 30/90, that he’s beginning to fear the appellation “promising young composer” is about to become a misnomer. And with the advent of his 30th birthday the following week, the ticking is beginning to be followed by a distant “Boom!”
More troubling to Jon than his lost youth, is if the industry workshop of his musical “Superbia,” which he has been working on for 7 years, doesn’t get any traction, he will have to admit failure and lack of talent. “Tick, Tick…Boom!” chronicles Jon wrestling with himself and those closest to him, his roommate and best friend Michael (George Salazar), his girlfriend Susan (Ciara Renee) and his parents (also played by George Salazar and Ciara Renee who play all other incidental characters), over whether it is time to abandon the theater or persevere. The play is set in 1990, the year Jonathan Larson actually turned 30 years old, and his real rock musical “Superbia” was completed.
Michael, who gave up being an actor and is now a successful marketing hot-shot making lots of money, is about to move out of their tiny Soho walk-up to a luxury apartment. He’s trying to convince Jon to follow in his footsteps and leave the squalor behind. He nags the reluctant composer until Jon agrees to come to a creative session at Michael’s agency. Michael hopes that Jon will find it easy and stimulating and that the agency team will love him and offer him a job. The chemistry between the two is off the charts. They move around the stage like a well-oiled machine and I believe they’ve been friends since childhood. Both performers have wonderful voices that can go from Broadway bro blast to sincere and intimate on a dime. And they both have that sparkle, that intensity, that they put into every line and every gesture that draws you in and makes you watch and wait for what they will say or do next. They’re both exciting to watch.
Susan, a dancer who longs for a dishwasher and a quieter life, has a job offer teaching in Massachusetts. She floats the idea by him of them living happily together by the sea. Jon’s knee jerk reaction is “If I want to write shows I have to be here. If you want to be a dancer…” To which she quickly replies, “I am a dancer. I’d still be a dancer if I lived in New England, but I’d have a dishwasher. At least think it over? For me?” Another tightening of the pressure band around Jon’s head. Unfortunately, the chemistry between Clara Renee and Nick Blaemire is not as palpable as between Blaemire and Salazar. Renee is a versatile actress. She plays at least half a dozen small incidental roles in this show brilliantly, differentiating them easily with a simple change of a sweater, turn of a wrist, or vocal inflection. Protective Jewish mother, bitchy agent, demanding diner patron, and back to sexy girlfriend Susan again. Perhaps if she had lower heels and wasn’t taller than Blaemire, making her kind of slump when they were side by side. Or maybe it was simply the way the part was written. But I never got the sense that they were really invested in each other and that the decisions of one were going to affect the decisions of the other.
Which brings me to my small problems with this piece of theater. I truly enjoyed it. I was moved, I identified with the essential struggles of the protagonist and thought they were universal and timeless. But I walked away from the performance with questions running around my head. And finding the answers to them haven’t resolved the little niggling thoughts.
Firstly, the play is so autobiographical, the facts line up so closely to the plot of the play, I couldn’t tell at times if I was reacting to what was happening on stage in front of me, or to what Jonathan Larson had gone through without knowing how it would turn out.
Then there’s the question of the structure of the piece. The first couple of scenes are a little awkward and don’t flow well. Larson wrote and performed it as a solo musical “rant” in 1993. The present version was turned into a 3 person musical 5 years after his death in 2001 by playwright David Auburn, who had a pile of monologues and songs to work with. Auburn’s respect for the original material may have gotten in the way of his own talents, and caused him to sacrifice some fluidity in the name of authenticity. But I wouldn’t have missed it, and if you’re a fan of musical theater, a fan of “Rent,” or struggling with a career decision of your own, you shouldn’t either.
Tick, Tick…Boom! Book, Music and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson, David Auburn Script Consultant, Vocal Arrangements and Orchestrations by Stephen Oremus, Directed by Jonathan Silverstein
WITH: Nick Blaemire (Jonathan); Ciara Renee (Susan); George Salazar (Michael)
Musical direction by Joey Chancey; choreography by Christine O’Grady; set design by Steven Kamp; costume design by Jennifer Paar; lighting design by Josh Bradford; sound design by Julian Evans; prop design by Ricola Wille; production coordinator, Adam Fitzgerald; production manager, David Beller; production stage manager, Joanna Muhlfelder; casting by Calleri Casting; press representatives, David Gersten & Associates. Presented by The Keen Company, Jonathan Silverstein, Artistic Director. Through November 20th at the Acorn Theater, Theater Row 410 West 42nd Street. www.telecharge.com