BWW REVIEW: Larson's TICK, TICK... BOOM! Is Too Good For Obscurity

You might say that Jonathan Larson's richly emotional and incisive tick, tick... BOOM! started as a protest musical.

Frustrated that his much-admired Richard Rodgers Award-winning musical Superbia was said to be too unconventional for Broadway and too big to produce Off-Broadway, the ever-emerging bookwriter/composer/lyricist decided to make his next project a one-man musical.

BWW REVIEW:  Larson's TICK, TICK... BOOM! Is Too Good For Obscurity
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Karen Olivo
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Originally titled 30/90 and billed as a solo rock monologue, the largely autobiographical new work expressed his conflicting feelings while approaching age 30 in the year 1990 and wondering if he was too old to be among New York's romanticized 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.

The new title, tick, tick... BOOM! refers to the time bomb of anxiety his leading character, Jon, feels as his girlfriend, a dancer, expresses a desire to leave Manhattan for a quieter life in New England while his best friend, a former actor, encourages him to join him in the corporate world where he too can enjoy the good life.

Performed in theatres, music venues and the occasional living room, tick, tick... BOOM! didn't receive a full production until after Larson's death in 1996, on the night before what was supposed to be the first Off-Broadway preview of Rent. Pulitzer Prize winner David Auburn restructured the show into a three-person musical, Stephen Oremus contributed the vocal arrangements and dive bar rock band orchestrations and 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.

While Rent is an explosion of youthful feelings of invincibility, tick, tick... BOOM! is a more introspective work and one of the best musicals to premiere in New York in this century. The wry-humored book riffs on the lead character'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 the arts contributes to our lives. Funnier moments are aced by a bubble-gum tune about being obsessed with sugar and a duet where a couple severely overthinks the problems in their relationship while trying to remain civil.

Larson's reverence to Stephen Sondheim is not only apparent in the character-driven craft of the score, but is written into the text. A comic highlight is a musical scene where Jon envisions his survival job environment as a parody of one of his idol's most beloved compositions.

BWW REVIEW:  Larson's TICK, TICK... BOOM! Is Too Good For Obscurity
Leslie Odom Jr. and Lin-Manuel Miranda
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Based on the material alone, the New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center concert production of tick, tick... BOOM! is absolutely a worth a visit, especially for those unfamiliar with the piece. But while some Encores! offerings, which open after a short rehearsal period, look ready for Broadway right from the get-go, director Oliver Butler's mounting opened looking very much like what it is officially designated as, a staged concert reading.

The talented trio of performers - Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jon, Karen Olivo as his girlfriend Susan and Leslie Odom, Jr. as his best friend Michael - seemed to still be at the stage where they were feeling out the material. Miranda in particular, and the other two occasionally, were relying on their scripts in hand, so relationships weren't fully realized, much of the arch humor didn't land and there was little tension in the storytelling.

Butler's basic staging, on designer Donyale Werle's rock concert set, is fine, except when it misses the point of the Sondheim parody song and of the number that shows us the lead character's emotional climax.

But music director Chris Fenwick's piano, guitar, bass and drums ensemble sounds great and the acting trio displays formidable skills as best they can. Though much of the role's musical demands seem out of his vocal capabilities, Miranda is a charismatic performer who displays a tender sincerity as the confused Jon. His softer musical moments are often lovely.

Like the character she plays yearns to do, Karen Olivo left New York, and show business altogether, a year ago for a quieter lifestyle. tick, tick... BOOM! marks her return to the Manhattan stage and it's good to hear her confident, vibrant vocals once again. Odom gives an appealing low key performance as a character who has nurtured an understated corporate elegance, though still capable of bursting into fits of boho energy.

Though this concert staging is far from ready for an extended run, tick, tick... BOOM! is absolutely deserving of a high-profile New York production. It's too good to remain as an interesting obscurity.

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