BWW Review: Nick Blaemire Leads Keen's Terrific Revival Of Jonathan Larson's Self-Portrait, TICK, TICK... BOOM!
While Jonathan Larson's RENT, his 1996 East Village adaptation of Giacomo Puccini, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa's LA BOHEME, presents a romanticized look at bohemians living in poverty for the sake of their art, his TICK, TICK... BOOM!, now getting a superb Off-Broadway revival via Keen Company, is more of a reality check.
Originally titled 30/90 and billed as a solo rock monologue, the largely autobiographical work expressed Larson's conflicting feelings while approaching age 30 in the year 1990 as he wondered if he was too old to be among New York's legion of promising starving artists, living in a tiny downtown share and writing underappreciated musicals while earning a meager living waiting tables in a diner.
Larson would perform the piece himself in clubs and living rooms, but there was never a full production until after his death, when his family granted Pulitzer Prize winner David Auburn permission to restructure the show into a three-person musical retitled TICK, TICK... BOOM!, referring to the time bomb of anxiety that leading character Jonathan feels as his girlfriend Susan, a dancer, expresses a desire to leave Manhattan for a quieter life in New England while his best friend Michael, a former actor, encourages him to join him in the corporate world where he too can enjoy the good life.
While RENT was still going strong on Broadway, TICK, TICK... BOOM! drew patrons to the way out of the way Jane Street Theatre for the better part of 2001. The wry-humored book riffs on Jonathan's feelings of intellectual and cultural superiority to those who are more financial successful than he, but still allows us to sympathize with him for his drive to create art that inspires others.
The score has a solid hard rock foundation flooded with smart and emotionally thick lyrics. The opening "30/90" is an anxiety attack with a back beat. "Come To Your Senses" is a power ballad of bottled-up emotions that doesn't allow its money notes to overwhelm its message.
On the quieter side, "Why" is a gorgeous lullaby about the simple pleasures art contributes to our lives. Funnier moments are aced by a bubble-gum tune about being obsessed with sugar, a duet where Jonathan and Susan severely overthink the problems in their relationship while trying to remain civil and a musical scene where the writer envisions his survival job environment as a parody of one of Stephen Sondheim's most beloved compositions.
Nick Blaemire, who, aside from being a popular musical theatre performer, was also the composer/lyricist of Broadway's GLORY DAYS, bears a substantial resemblance to Larson, and plays the role with an appealing highbrow nerdiness. His rock vocals come with a strong emphasis on coloring lyrics with meaning and when he dances it's a joyful display of frenetic cool. In what is perhaps the quietest and most introspective 11 o'clock number in musical theatre, he lovingly expresses Jonathan's need to always be creating.
George Salazar has a wide-eyed sweetness as Michael, making the secret the character is keeping about his future all the more heart-breaking. Ciara Renèe displays a fierce rock belt and a frisky demeanor as Susan. The two of them also excel in various smaller roles.
Music director Joey Chancey's band plays Stephen Oremus' hard-driving and sometimes comical orchestrations upstage of designer Steven Kemp's sparsely-furnished set. Beneath a graffiti-covered ceiling, the moveable piano, couch and large cable spool (the kind that might serve as a table in a struggling artist's apartment) leave plenty of room for director Jonathan Silverstein and choreographer Christine O'Grady's flashy, playful and breakneck-paced production. There's a sense of urgency throughout the ninety-minute production that reflects each character's race with time to accomplish their goals in life.
RENT is Jonathan Larson's observation of the world surrounding him, but TICK, TICK... BOOM! is an incisive self-portrait and perhaps the most underappreciated musical that has played on or Off-Broadway this century.