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Tick, Tick… BOOM!

Jonathan Larson's musical returns to New York with Nick Blaemire, Ciara Renée, and George Salazar.

George Salazar, Ciara Renée, and Nick Blaemire star in the Keen Company revival of Tick, Tick... BOOM!
(© Carol Rosegg)

The sound of a clock looms large over Jonathan Larson's Tick, Tick… BOOM!, now receiving its first-ever off-Broadway revival by Keen Company. "The sound you are hearing is not a technical problem," our hero, also named Jonathan, tells us. "It is the sound of one man's mounting anxiety." We instantly understand why the clock in his head sounds like it's about to explode; Jon is a week shy of turning 30 and he's been deemed a "promising" musical-theater writer, though he's not yet seen any sort of success.

When Larson started performing Tick, Tick… BOOM! as a solo show called Boho Days in the early 1990s, it was an excuse to vent about the ostensible failure of an earlier work that he had won awards and grants for, but the show failed to find backers. No one really knew what to do with something so ahead of its time. Larson had no idea that Rent, the show with which he would become synonymous, was just on the horizon, as was his untimely death, at 36, on the morning of its first off-Broadway preview.

It's hard not to read Larson's passing into the plot strands of Tick, Tick… BOOM!, an exposed nerve of a show being honored with an emotionally overwhelming production at the Acorn Theatre. The sense of time running out is obviously present in the text, but it's even more apparent in the hands of director Jonathan Silverstein and his electric cast. This mounting not only presents a little-known masterwork in all its glory, but also leaves us heartbroken at the prospect of what could have been had Larson's life not ended in 1996.

The canonical version of Tick, Tick… BOOM!, which premiered in 2001 at the Jane Street Theatre, was restructured by Proof Pulitzer winner David Auburn from a solo show to a three-actor piece. Here, Nick Blaemire plays Jonathan, a young man whose accomplishments include several unproduced shows, a sexually charged but deteriorating relationship, and copious shifts waiting tables.

His significant others are equally at odds with their lives: girlfriend Susan (Ciara Renée) has recently turned to teaching dance rather than performing it, while best friend Michael (George Salazar) has landed a job that provides big-time luxury, but a secret he harbors diminishes it all. What Jonathan wants is his big break, something he could achieve through a show he wrote called Superbia, which is about to have a reading. He believes that his brand of rock music could change the Broadway landscape, even if no one else realizes it yet.

Renée presents a nuanced psychological portrait of a performer at the end of her rope, one who's ready to stop struggling and settle down, while Salazar imbues Michael with a childlike energy that makes his all-too-grownup fate even more devastating. While the pair starts out shaky, they grow more comfortable by the show's third number, "Jonny Can't Decide," delivered with a beautiful yearning. Their big numbers, "Come to Your Senses" and "Real Life," are showstoppers.

Blaemire has the toughest part, one sung to the rafters on the original cast album by Raúl Esparza and memorably played two years ago at New York City Center by a Lin-Manuel Miranda on the cusp of Hamilton notoriety. Blaemire, a writer and performer who's seen his share of theatrical heartbreak (his 2008 Broadway musical Glory Days closed on opening night), brings to the table an intrinsic understanding of the highs and lows of show business, one that grounds his Jonathan in reality. A little nebbishy, incredibly likable, and filled with complicated anxiety, we forget Blaemire is even playing a character. His is the most deeply realistic portrait of that sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you have big dreams, a drive to succeed, and a finish line that gets further away every time you step on the gas.

Unfortunately, the three gifted stars are done a major disservice by Julian Evans' muddled sound design. When Christine O'Grady's choreography takes Blaemire or Salazar to a certain side of the stage, their voices are being pumped through two center speakers, instead of being spread out amid the oblong playing space. The rest of the design is kept largely abstract, allowing the audience to keep their focus primarily on the performers. Stephen Kemp's set is a vast, empty space, save for some furniture and a vaulted bohemian loft-style ceiling, while Jennifer Paar's costumes are nondescript '90s wear. Josh Bradford's floodlight-style lighting further allows the performers to bare their souls.

The feeling of being simultaneously so close and incredibly far from your goal is likely what Larson was experiencing when he wrote Tick, Tick… BOOM! But of course, everyone now knows of his prodigious talent. The world realized it when Rent set the world aflame, and it's immensely clear here through the clever lyrics and the authentic-sounding rock (the great four-member band is led by Joey Chancey). Larson didn't live to see his dreams come to fruition, but not only have his creations stood the test of time, they truly did change the shape of the art form he held so dear.

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