Review: TICK, TICK ...BOOM! at John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts

Directed by Tony and Emmy Award Winner Neil Patrick Harris

By: Jan. 31, 2024
Review: TICK, TICK ...BOOM! at John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts
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Review: TICK, TICK ...BOOM! at John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts
Brandon Uranowitz and the company
of tick, tick ...BOOM!

Tick, tick … BOOM! is a raw and moving semi-autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson who would go on to create the wildly successful Rent. While the character Jon is haunted by the relentless tick, tick of the clock marking his need to succeed in theater as he approaches his 30th birthday, we in the audience know of real-life tragic backstory of the author’s brief life. The artist died suddenly and unexpectedly of an aortic dissection at age 35 the day before the first Off-Broadway preview performance of Rent.  

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts revisits the work with a spiffy new Broadway Center Stage production of Pulitzer Prize winner’s musical directed by Neil Patrick Harris – an Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor who is deeply connected to Larson’s Rent and tick, tick …BOOM! as both actor and director.

The production brings together three of Broadway’s most exciting and award-winning talents: Tony Award-winner Brandon Uranowitz (Leopoldstadt, Falsettos) as Jon, Tony nominee Denée Benton (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1912) as Susan, and Tony nominee Grey Henson (Shucked, Mean Girls) as Michael.

Review: TICK, TICK ...BOOM! at John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts
The cast of tick, tick ...BOOM!

This production of tick, tick …BOOM! features new orchestrations and vocal arrangements. The cast was expanded to include an ensemble in multiple roles (Kenedy Caughell, Kelvin Moon Loh, Yael “Yaya” Reich and Nikhil Saboo). These rich, layered voices help point us from this early Jonathan Larson work to his more famous Rent. With the ensemble, we can connect the dots from “Johnny Can’t Decide” in tick, tick …BOOM! to “Will I?” and “No Day But Today” in Rent.

Tick, tick …BOOM articulates the anxiety of the artist’s late 20s as he is eager to move away from childhood and wants to shake off the feeling of being poised on the edge of all he is meant to do. Yet the audience always knows that while tick, tick …BOOM!’s Jon achieves the “one song, glory… one song to leave behind” that Roger sings of in Rent, for Jonathan Larson that glory is too short.

We are in tremendous hands with Brandon Uranowitz as Jon. While we’ve seen the device of the camcorder video monologue in Rent here it’s an especially smart choice, allowing even the audience seated in the very back of the 1,161-seat house to see the nuanced performance of Uranowitz, a strong and subtle actor with a huge range (evidenced by award-winning performances in productions as diverse as Leopoldstadt, Falsettos, The Band’s Visit, Burn This and an early-career Torch Song Trilogy at Studio Theater which earned him a Helen Hayes nomination). Being able to read the emotions on Uranowitz’s face harkens back to the earliest days of tick, tick … BOOM! as a rock monologue performed by Jonathan Larson himself in small performance spaces. There is a rawness and yearning in Uranowitz’s performance that is moving and emotional.

Review: TICK, TICK ...BOOM! at John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts
Denée Benton

Denée Benton, double cast as both girlfriend Susan and actress Karessa in Jon’s Superbia workshop, brought down the house singing “Come to Your Senses,” drawing the Kennedy Center audience in with its power and emotion. Benton earned prolonged applause from the audience, and one could see some members of the audience eager to get to their feet yet unwilling to fully stop the show with a standing ovation in the middle of the performance.

Grey Henson brings a boyish innocence to his portrayal of Michael. Even the big kid suits and shiny attaché case donned to create a professional veneer don’t fully hide the young summer camp friend that Jon first met. Michael’s excitement of his Gucci belts and the butt-warming seats of his new BMW is joyful. We can see how the two longtime friends are each happy for each other while still concerned about what the professional successes of the other means about their own choices.

But there’s a distracting busyness to the stage business, especially at the top of the show. Audiences are used to the common theatre device of cast members anonymously whisking furniture in and out for a scene change but in tick, tick …BOOM!’s early musical numbers, the furniture whisks, but the scene doesn’t change – we’re back in the same apartment (a supposedly-near-empty apartment but it is now filled with furniture whiskers). The original show was designed for a bare stage and piano and doesn’t need excessive motion throughout to hold our attention. (That said, the choreography by Paul McGill in the diner during Sunday and in Michael’s posh new apartment in No More was fun and humorous, adding variety and joyfulness.)

Paul Tate DePoo III’s scenic design of large-paned loft windows and a gritty shower-in-the-kitchen apartment is enhanced by Nathan Scheuer’s video and projection design that welcomes audiences to the last days of the 80’s with scenes of Alf, Peter Jennings, MTV VJs and Michael Jackson. Cory Pattak’s lighting design utilizes a towered grid that not only holds lighting instruments but serves as a supplemental set piece for scenes on the roof or in NYC. Andrea Hood costumes the cast in varied street clothing of the late 80s, but one entire song is dedicated to a green, green dress and it was clear the actress was not comfortable with the clothing, pulling at it and tugging at the dress throughout the number. With a costume piece so central, it would have better served the show and the actor to put more thought into the dress.

The band (the five-piece Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra) is on stage throughout. Musical supervision is by Stephen Oremus, and music direction by Ben Cohn. Haley Parcher’s sound design had to combat the Eisenhower’s challenging acoustics (especially evident in a production like this where the audience doesn’t walk in knowing all the lyrics). With all the modern wizardry of sound projection, it is a shame that when an upright piano serves as a prop in this production it is obvious that the keyboard sound is coming from an entirely different direction.

Revisiting tick, tick …BOOM! with such an accomplished cast, a devoted director and the resources of the Kennedy Center is an exciting opportunity to give additional exposure to a talented and promising artist who, while he left his mark, left us too soon.

Runtime: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission

TICK, TICK … BOOM! by Jonathan Larson, is directed by Neil Patrick Harris and is presented as part of the Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage series. The production is in Eisenhower Theater at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20566. The production runs through February 4. For tickets and additional production information visit the Kennedy Center website.  

Photos by Teresa Castracane


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