By Iris Wiener
To say that The Jonathan Larson Project is one of passion is an understatement; the heart, creativity and talent that went into creating such a stunning experience is transcendent. The special event at Feinstein’s/54 Below, which ran for a short engagement last week, was a touching celebration and tribute to composer and playwright Jonathan Larson, the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning visionary who passed away far too soon at the age of 35 in 1996. His well-known pieces Rent and Tick, Tick…BOOM! went on to define a generation, but the abundance of work that had not been publicly recorded, produced, heard or performed, is a panoply of intriguing, heart-breaking brilliance, and deserves to be experienced by more lucky audiences Off-Broadway.
Larson’s songs are recognizable due to their ability to tell stories. Rather than act as “feeling” songs that act as filler throughout his plays, his songs serve as the story in and of themselves- a trickier, more complex feat that is rarely seen on stage these days. Feinstein’s/54 Below Creative Programming Director, Jennifer Ashley Tepper, conceived and directed this project in an incredibly intelligent and poignant fashion, choosing work that demonstrated Larson’s soul while highlighting the relevancy of his style and words in a social and political climate that begs for it. Additionally, every piece was accompanied by program notes detailing the songs’ history and rationale. Ranging from songs that didn’t make the cut in Superbia and Rent to standalone pieces that were brought to life at benefits and concerts, “The JLP” encompassed a range of stories and sounds that are as expansive as they are diverse.
The eighteen song set began with “Greene Street,” a standalone number mirroring Larson’s response to moving to Manhattan in 1983: an upbeat, optimistic treat that would easily have been a breakout tune in any production. Other favorites from the finely woven evening include “Out of My Dreams,” a song enjoyably reminiscent of the 90s down to the fantastic studded white and green leather jacket worn by Krysta Rodriguez (whose voice is so out-of-this-world one might think they are actually dreaming while experiencing it). She teamed up with the fantastically talented Lauren Marcus on “White Male World,” an innovative, fast-paced, far-sighted piece featuring the lyrics, “In the White Man World, let’s cut down a jungle, let’s go start a war, let’s go rape a coed, what a thing to do.” With the unsettling subject so pertinent in the current, divisive and uncomfortable world, it is a scarily powerful number (not to mention that it is undeniably scary how much talent these two performers possess).
Standouts among the gentlemen’s songs included Andy Mientus’ gritty pop-rock take on “Valentine’s Day,” a heart-breaking single originally intended for the character of Mimi in Rent. With George Salazar and Nick Blaemire’s back-up vocals, it was a truly haunting piece of music that won’t soon be forgotten. Blaemire was able to step into the role of Jonathan in Tick, Tick…BOOM! for a second time (he previously wore his shoes Off-Broadway in 2016) as he took on the cut song “Find the Key.” Interestingly, George Salazar (also a BOOM! vet) and Mientus joined him to allow for a unique version, as it featured three voices for the same character. Though “Pura Vida” was a pretty number (featuring Salazar’s sweet vocals), the standalone piece didn’t mesh with the themes pervading the rest of the “Project.”
Lauren Marcus is only moments away from being discovered as Broadway’s “next-big-thing” (and it will likely happen when she takes to the stage in February’s Be More Chill). It would be a crime for “The JLP” to be the last time audiences will see her take on “Hosing the Furniture,” an astounding portrayal of a woman completing her domestic “duties,” while worrying about her appearance and the fact that her housework is a reflection of her soul. As Marcus grew increasingly angry, working tirelessly to keep a smile on her face, she impeccably lamented, “Sometimes I wish this hose were a gun,” finally crooning, “I’m free!” Marcus’ performance was filled with humor and range, and her amazing take on this piece dared audiences to ever look at a crumb the same way again.
It would have been impossible not to feel invigorated by the finale, hugely in part due to the phenomenal music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements of Charlie Rosen (which were prevalent and sensational throughout the entire production). Tepper’s direction was at its stellar best in the end, when audiences were brought full circle from sadness over the loss of a rising, integral talent, and the optimistic fashion in which Larson chose to live his life and share love and compassion through his work. The ensemble listened to Larson’s demo tape of “Piano,” taking a contemplative moment before launching into his beautiful sentiment. “I got soul. Oh piano, you saved my soul again. I may not play like a concert man, but I got a soul.” Mr. Larson, your soul certainly lives on.
Feinstein’s/54 Below 254 West 54 St. (Cellar) NYC (Oct. 9 thru 14)
Photos: Melissa Griegel Photography