Jonathan Larson may have reinvented the Broadway musical with his AIDS-era smash Rent, but I’ve never been a fan of the show. So I didn’t expect much from his earlier, little-produced musical Tick, Tick… BOOM! Imagine my surprise, then: Keen Company’s new Off-Broadway revival of the 90-minute three-hander is just plain great.
Nick Blaemire (of Broadway’s Godspell and Cry-Baby) turns in a warm, superbly polished performance as Jonathan, a struggling Broadway composer freaking out at the prospect of turning 30. Perhaps a little more than a triple threat, Blaemire even accompanies himself on the onstage, out-of-tune upright piano that centers the set. Rounding out the cast of the autobiographical musical are Ciara Renée (Pippin on Broadway) and George Salazar (Spring Awakening national tour, Godspell on Broadway) playing, respectively, his dancer girlfriend Susan and best friend/roommate Michael, and switching seamlessly into an assortment of smaller roles too.
But if a show’s book and score are diffuse, as I find Rent‘s, boundless energy and a surfeit of onstage skill can’t overcome it. The all-around skillful team staging this Tick, Tick… BOOM! does right by the show’s simple, focussed story, letting its sincerity and real-life evocativeness shine. It’s a tale that very much hangs together.
It’s 1990. New York City is still a land where starving artists can afford to shack up in downtown’s plentiful run-down apartments; Jon and Michael share one of those prototypical shower-in-the-kitchen flats of yore, with (as Jeff Foxworthy once pointed out in a classic comedy routine) “the spool” as a table. Furnishings and props performs multiple duties through the many cleverly staged numbers.
As Jon’s 30th birthday approaches, so does a nerve-wracking workshop performance of his supposedly groundbreaking rock musical (identified as Superbia, Larson’s real-life first effort). The culmination of five years’ work, the one-night event feels make-or-break for Jon, who toils in a diner to pay his rent. Meanwhile Susan – who, like George, is, I have to say, a little too good to be true – facing her own crisis of ennui is urging Jon to give up the starving-artist life and escape with her to the relaxing shores of Cape Cod.
Meanwhile Michael has done something along those lines, “selling out” by abandoning an incipient acting career for a “secure” corporate job that has just netted him a shiny new apartment and a BMW.
Jon’s one-day venture into his friend’s plastic corporate world is one of the show’s comic highlights. But there’s plenty of humor, mostly the sweet kind, throughout. Jon’s parents are hilarious Jewish Westchester types. Renée is brilliant as his agent, oozing cynical showbiz dismissiveness, delightfully smarmy as the ice-cold leader of the brainstorming session at Michael’s office, and compelling as the show-within-the-show’s flirtatious leading lady with the wonderful name of Karessa. The lyrics too are mostly clever and funny, lapsing into cliché only sporadically, as in the unsatisfying closing number.
Kudos are due to Stephen Oremus’s vocal arrangements and orchestrations. The songs comfortably inhabit a border world between show tunes and sophisticated melodic pop and rock. When the three voices combine in harmony and counterpoint the results are thrilling. An excellent four-piece rock band led by musical director and keyboardist Joey Chancey supports the crystal-voiced cast with understated perfection, reflecting the well-tempered energy of Jonathan Silverstein’s direction and Christine O’Grady’s deceptively easy-looking choreography. It all comes about under a high, tilted ceiling by set designer Steve Kemp that suggests in turn the roof of a loft apartment, the lights of Broadway, and more.
Costume designer Jennifer Paar does much with little for Renée’s character transformations. An especially effective moment occurs during Karessa’s big solo number when she sheds a jacket to reveal Susan’s green dress from the early number about that very garment. Renée does lovely, precision work with the melody here. Though she doesn’t have a powerhouse voice, amazing control and sensitive navigation of registers help make for a rock-solid performance.
Blaemire and Salazar are every bit as good, both musically and with the show’s pathos-streaked comedy. In the end I really cared about these characters, something I hadn’t expected. I left the theater reflecting, even as the final tune echoed in my ears, on how New York and the world have changed since 1990 and how they haven’t, for artists and for all of us.
Tick, Tick… BOOM! is at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row in New York City through November 20. For tickets visit the Keen Company website.