NY Theater: Review By Brian Scott Lipton
Two decades have not lessened the sting of Jonathan Larson’s death for musical theater lovers, especially those who literally worship his 1996 musical “Rent.” But an equally great case for Larson’s overwhelming talent is “Tick Tick…BOOM,” his autobiographical musical which premiered Off-Broadway in 2001. This evocative, thrilling piece is now getting a superlative revival as the opening of this year’s “Off Center” series at New York City Center through Saturday, June 28th.
This intimate character study nonetheless manages to fill the vast auditorium, thanks in part to both Oliver Butler’s inventive direction and the razor-sharp characterizations provided by its three players. Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of “In The Heights,” is no stranger to struggling in the theater, which may be why he gives such an extraordinarily moving, utterly believable and brilliantly sardonic performance as Jon (Larson’s character), who is suffering a crisis of belief just days before his 30th birthday and the premiere of his new workshop.
Barely making ends meet by working in a diner, Jon considers abandoning his passion, just as his roommate and childhood pal Michael (Leslie Odom Jr.) has “sold out” for a lucrative career as a marketing executive, and longtime girlfriend Susan (Karen Olivo), a dancer-cum-dance-teacher, makes it known she wants to give up New York for a more “normal” life in New England.
While bits of the script (which were worked on by David August) do feel slightly dated – was SoHo ever really dangerous? – the show’s theme of staying true to yourself still feels incredibly timely. More importantly, Larson’s score is a masterpiece, expertly mixing catchy up-tempo tunes (“Green Green Dress”, “Sugar”), heartfelt ballads (“See Her Smile”) and philosophical screeds (“Louder Than Words”). If Miranda’s slightly pitchy voice doesn’t suit the score as perfectly as Raul Esparza’s or Neil Patrick Harris’ did (both of whom played the role in prior productions), he nevertheless gets to the core of every lyric.
Olivo, making a most welcome, long-awaited return to the New York stage, is a vocal dynamo who brings down the house with her take on the show’s strongest song “Come to Your Senses,” and Odom (best known for “Smash”) is pitch-perfect as Michael, carrying off the character’s joyous ode to gracious living, “No More,” with aplomb. The pair also shine in playing a number of small roles, including Jon’s father and his Jewish agent.
Thursday night’s performance was a special treat, as Stephen Sondheim was in the audience (seated directly in front of me). It’s always impressive to have the god of musical theater in the house, but Sondheim has a special connection to the show, as he was Larson’s idol (as mentioned numerous times in the script), recorded a voicemail message used in the show, and even provided the basic melody for “Sunday” (based on the song of the same name in “Sunday in the Park with George”), Larson’s hilarious, spot-on takedown of privileged New Yorkers indulging in overpriced brunches. I think he loved it.
I know I did. RIP Jonathan Larson. You truly were “da bomb.”
*Photo: Joan Marcus