Tick, Tick…BOOM!: A Rocking Prequel to Rent
What a perfect show to see a few days after Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. Not only is the song, ‘Sunday‘ honored by the late great Jonathan Larson with his version, ‘Sunday’, an ode to working Sunday brunch in his musical, Tick, Tick,…BOOM, he refers to Sondheim silently throughout, but only mouthing his name. Sondheim seems to be the lead character’s (and Larsen’s) true god of musical theatre. As this is basically a biography of some sort, the lead character, is also named Jonathan, and is played with an earnest Rent-like rock charm by Nick Blaemire.
Written and performed first as a one man show back in 1990 before Rent made its way on to the NYTW’s stage, it was revised and revamped by playwright David Auburn into this three-actor piece that stands before us. It is not surprising that Larson’s future success warps our knowledge and understanding of this piece. The view into the future makes us cheer Jonathan on, as both his 30th birthday celebration and the night of his new musical workshop grow near. Moments of self-doubt and questioning himself arise as he contemplates giving up on his dream and taking a job in advertising. This feels true and poignant (and a little Rent-like), even though we know the outcome. It makes me wonder, without that knowledge, what would we think of this show? Would we be believing in his dream if we had no idea whether it would come true or not? I would hope that we would support him as strongly as both the writer and the character are asking us to.
On the downside, Tick Tick…BOOM makes us compare this work to the legendary Rent which earned him 3 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. And that comparison isn’t always kind. Exploring all the same themes that are prevalent in Rent, and oddly enough, Sunday in the Park with George: the commerce of art, giving up or believing in ones self, deciding between children/love and art, sickness, death, and most of all, moving on. Insert lyrics from ‘Move On‘ here (https://youtu.be/RYytwiyVRpg). In Rent, Larson found the bohemian opera in those themes, big and powerful, where as in Tick Tick…BOOM, the themes are there, but a bit more pedestrian. Less grand and soaring, but still present. If we squint, we can hear the birth of those Rent characters, starving artists: Mark Cohen and Roger Davis, not to mention all the other characters somewhere in Larson’s music and lyrics.
Blaemire is perfectly cast; not only looking the part, but also engaging and dynamic. He sings the part of both these two Rent leads combined excellently, but do yourself and this production a favor and try to stay away from listening to Raul Esparza sing any of the songs from the 2001 Off-Broadway production of Tick, Tick…Boom. Esparza’s renditions are truly amazing; singing them with such power. He elevates the songs in a way that Blaemire tries to do, but with less success (https://youtu.be/s7-bFFIPPL0). He just doesn’t have Esparza’s power (very few do), but Blaemire does have the emotional depth to carry this intimate and well crafted show (set design-Steven Kemp; costume design-Jennifer Paar; lighting design-Josh Bradford; sound design-Julian Evans) with his own kind of power and emotionality.
Standing along side him, with a big dash of Rent‘s Mimi and Maureen combined, Susan, is played with a big voiced electric charm by Ciara Renee. Gorgeous and talented, she makes us adore her and all the other characters she dons throughout the show with ease. George Salazar as the good friend/gay man roommate, Michael, doomed in love and life, gets the short end of the Rent stick here. His character lacks a strong presence, story, or song, just like the Rent character, Benny. He’s the sell-out actor turned ad man, but also the one who is diagnosed with HIV. Salazar sounds good and does the part justice breaking our heart at certain moments, so it’s a shame that his emotional arc is sidelined, only to be used as a catalyst for Jonathan’s crisis of faith, rather than a focus in itself. Sad, especially as we know the real story of Larson that isn’t being told here. I’m thankful though that Larson found more dimension and depth for the characters of Angel and Tom Collins in Rent. That is how it’s done well. Larson also, laid the groundwork here for numerous equivalent characters that would materialize later in Rent, namely the parents of Jonathan, calling on the phone and leaving messages on the answering machine. And there, portrayed by Renee, is Jonathan’s talent agent who will eventually be immortalized as Rent‘s Buzzline Producer, Alexi Darling. It almost becomes a fun game to pick out the parallels and hear the similarities.
Keen Company has produced a strong show here at the Acorn Theatre exploring basically Rent‘s origin story. Strong musical direction (and piano) by Joey Chancey, with a talented group of musicians (percussion-Phil Coiro; guitar-Stephen Flakus; bass-Corey Schutzer) help fill out the sound; engaging us with rock anthems. Director Jonathan Silverstein and choreographer Christine O’Grady do an impressive job keeping this story moving along at such an engaging pace. The rent here off-broadway for Tick, Tick,…BOOM is cheaper but it’s still worth hanging around in 1990’s Manhattan with Larson. It’s a exciting blast knowing what is coming up next, and who might leave you a message at the end.