The New York City Center stage has the distinct appearance of a production load-in greeted by a case of TNT — a fitting aesthetic for Rent composer Jonathan Larson's lesser-known bio-musical, tick, tick… BOOM!, now playing as part of the Encores! Off-Center series. Crates, wires, and lights are all strewn about the stage like an art project just on the brink of pulling together its stray pieces (the work of scenic designer Donyale Werle). This rough-edged shrapnel is just as abundant in tick, tick... BOOM!'s performances as it is in its physical space. Yet, these unmanicured, potentially hazardous shards are exactly what give the production its explosive power.
tick, tick... BOOM!, which began its life as a solo rock monologue, presents a musicalized Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The artist in this case is Jonathan Larson, whose revolutionary rock adaptation of La Bohème rose to its current messianic status after Larson's tragically premature death in 1996. Providentially, this modest precursor, which features an equally memorable score, tackles the very question that came to define Larson's abbreviated career: What is the best way to spend our days when there is no way of knowing how many we have ahead of us?
We first meet Jon — a struggling songwriter living in a rundown West Side apartment — as he wades through the trenches of a life crisis brought on by the ticking time bomb of his impending 30th birthday. The last strand of hope keeping him in this torturous business is the potential success of an upcoming workshop of his new musical Superbia, where he hopes his idol — whose name he can hardly bare to utter — may finally see his work. (hint: One of Larson's songs is entitled "Sunday.")
Tony-winning actor-composer Lin-Manuel Miranda makes the microscopic leap into Larson's baggy pants and knitted beanie (costume designer Clint Ramos capturing the essence of '90s artist grunge), delivering the poignant sincerity his In the Heights disciples would have expected of him. As someone painfully familiar with the challenges of pushing new musical genres through the barbed wire of Broadway, the piece gives Miranda a mouthpiece for his own story, which he delivers with wonderful warmth, humor, and authenticity. He certainly does not share the trained, booming voice that Raúl Esparza lent to the part in its 2001 off-Broadway production at the Jane Street Theatre — an element that those familiar with the production or its subsequent cast recording may miss in this mounting. However, if you've ever heard songwriters present their own music from behind the piano bench, Miranda's delivery, if nothing else, will take on an air of authenticity that he grounds in solid acting chops.
He surrounds himself with vocal powerhouses and frequent collaborators Leslie Odom Jr. (with whom Miranda has been developing his new musical Hamilton) and Karen Olivo (former In the Heights costar and West Side Story comrade). While shuffling through a collection of minor, ancillary characters, Odom and Olivo primarily play Michael — Jon's childhood best friend who has traded in his acting career for a lucrative marketing position — and Susan — Jon's girlfriend who yearns for a stable life outside the city with children and a dishwasher.
Odom offers a sturdy, subdued performance as the picture of Jon's alternative, corporate lifestyle. He beautifully services the contemplative number "Real Life," which he sings alongside Miranda. But the pair's brightest moment comes in their duet "No More," where, like a couple of hyperactive teenagers, they run rampant around the stage, reveling in Michael's newfound wealth. Olivo — who returns to the New York stage for the first time since formally exiting show business last year — has maintained the commanding presence that earned her Broadway notoriety and a Tony Award win (for West Side Story) in 2009. Though her performance, at times, feels mildly restrained, the genuine connection she shares with her character organically shines through. It eventually culminates in the show-stopping number "Come to Your Senses," where all of her walls finally collapse and the stunning power of her voice receives the ovation it deserves.
The trio's natural rapport lends the piece a genuine camaraderie and synchronicity that far surpasses the level of polish director Oliver Butler's production has managed to achieve in its short Encores!-length rehearsal period. Apropos of a story about the bumpy creative process, the opening-night performance was riddled with technical difficulties, beyond the production's already pockmarked exterior. Miranda's shorted head microphone was traded out for a handheld (which he handled with exceptional swagger) until he was fitted for a new head mic onstage in the middle of the performance, leaving plenty of time for Olivo and Odom to offer a little mid-performance improv show. As Miranda returned center stage, his next line was greeted with thunderous applause by a rejuvenated crowd and the show went on. As the cast closed the performance with Larson's gorgeous number, "Louder Than Words," the questions the songwriter poses to himself in the lyrics suddenly seemed to offer a completely cogent response.
Why do we play with fire?
Why do we run our finger through the flame?
Why do we leave our hand on the stove—
Although we know we're in for some pain?
Because of moments in the theater like these.