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tick, tick...BOOM!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Karen Olivo
Photo by Joan Marcus

Where's the ticking? At the very start of Wednesday's opening night performance of the Encores! Off-Center production of tick, tick...BOOM! at City Center, the lead character, Jon, referred frequently to a sound that only he could hear, even though the audience was clearly supposed to. It's easy enough to write off as a mere glitch—and another sound issue later required an onstage radio microphone replacement while two cast members (hilariously) improvised—but even audiences who see and hear exactly what director Oliver Butler intended are likely to think that something substantial is missing from this well-intentioned but off-kilter mounting.

To some extent, that's the intended effect. As written and originally performed in 1990 as a "rock monologue" by Jonathan Larson, tick, tick...BOOM! chronicles a young artist's quest to both stay true to his ideals and be recognized, artistically and financially, for what he so tirelessly toils to create. There are certainly plenty of echoes of Larson's future megahit Rent to be found, in the subject matter (sharing minuscule apartments, AIDS, relationships that fail because of mismatched ambitions, and more) as well as the sound, a kind of Sondheim-meets-metal-meets-electronica blend of theatrical pastiche and late-baby-boomer pop. But this, at its heart, a leaner, rougher, younger show that reveals latent gifts still in the earlier stages of developing into brilliance.

For the 2001 Off-Broadway premiere, playwright David Auburn (Proof) and music man Stephen Oremus not only reconfigured the evening for three performers but also further highlighted the sadnesses and ironies Larson didn't know he was injecting into his writing. Larson's story is about a struggling young composer (ostensibly himself) warring against the clock to find his success, insisting it was about Jon striving to complete a show as he approaches his 30th birthday even though, in retrospect, it seemed more as if he was predicting his own sudden death on the night before Rent's first Off-Broadway preview in January 1996. At that time, with that show still burning white hot on Broadway and elsewhere, tick, tick...BOOM! took on new layers of resonance that packed an emotional wallop but were not quite strong enough to help it survive the industry downturn that occurred in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

If you're not familiar with the show, or if it's been some 13 years since you've seen it, the good news is that this Encores! version meets all the basic requirements. Butler's staging deploys a "rock-concert rehearsal" aesthetic to flaunt Donyale Werle's simple-but-effective bandstand set and four instrumentalists (Chris Fenwick is the musical director, Matt Gallagher the pianist and conductor) so the tiny show easily fills the auditorium. And because of the expansive theatricality of Larson's work, with a book that uses grace, honest humor, and reflection to tell its story about navigating the New York professional theatre scene while trying to maintain friendships and romances, and songs that range from the portentously anxious "30/90" to the Sondheim parody "Sunday" through the frantic "Therapy" to the soul-searching "Why" and more, you never feel like you're seeing less than a fully, and beautifully, wrought musical.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr.
Photo by Joan Marcus

But if all the big-picture elements are present, a distinct absence of fine details prevents them from completely igniting. Energetic but unfocused choreography from Camille A. Brown and too many broad, shallowly cutting strokes from Butler suggest everyone is just out for a good time and not much more. There's no suspense or looming tragedy, the awareness that Jon is, in fact, giving up literally everything for his art. Without all that, tick, tick...BOOM! is highly conventional and, despite its free-spirited kineticism, not that special.

More damaging still are the performers. The closest to meeting his role's requirements is Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Jon's successful, gay, and on-the-brink friend Michael. Odom is a fine singer, but possessing a higher and lighter voice loaded with none of the grumbling of "settling" that's so essential to conveying Michael's key inner darkness. Odom's deadpan sense of humor and nimble physicality find the higher level of fun, however, and effectively communicate Michael's complex, lifelong relationship with Jon.

Jon's girlfriend, Susan, is a challenging part in its own right, demanding both a caressing warmth and a brittle desperation: She's torn between love for Jon and a desire for domesticity, representative of the battle between the ideal and the real that Jon is waging against himself. Karen Olivo (a Tony winner for the recent revival of West Side Story) projects many of these qualities individually and in isolation, but is unable to resolve them into a consistent character. Worse, her big number, "Come to Your Senses," has been awkwardly transposed, cranked up in tempo, and stretched to maximum thinness, thus removing most of its edge and any chance of its registering as the defiant, show-stopping catharsis it can be.

As Jon, Lin-Manuel Miranda has to push much harder than he should to sell his songs. Though In the Heights proved him to be a cunning composer-lyricist (he won a Tony for it) and an ingratiating actor, he's a terrible singer. (Anyone who saw him in Merrily We Roll Along at Encores! already knows this.) He lacks power and tone at every point of his range, and has a San Andreas Fault–shaky top—a major detriment for Jon, a role that's saddled with 11 not-easy songs and that was originated in this version by powerhouse tenor Raúl Esparza. Because Jon sings everything from hard rock to tender ballads, the role insists on a suppleness and fluidity of voice Miranda cannot fake. (Though Larson was no world-class vocalist, recordings he left behind demonstrate a vocal confidence that Miranda also does not possess.)

To his credit, Miranda brings a bare authenticity to Jon, and shines with his usual diamond-in-the-rough charm. He has a firm grasp on the role's humor, and finds passionate sensitivity in his more intimate scenes with Odom and Olivo; the lead-up to the sadly romantic break-up number, "See Her Smile," is particularly effective. But Miranda displays none of the hunger that needs to drive Jon—you don't really believe, as you have to, that this is a man for whom deadlines have towering psychological significance. Miranda seems so laid-back that you don't doubt he'll coast along happily until his Big Break arrives, which runs counter to the arc of the play.

Or, to reiterate, the ticking is absent. And, as the title suggests, without the ticking there can't be a boom. There's real entertainment to be found here, no question, and even at less than its best this is a dynamic musical and a superb companion piece to Rent. But tick, tick...BOOM! should be a sobering reminder of the transitory nature of talent, and why it's so necessary to embrace those who move you and whom you care about in the precious time you have. When that message comes through here, it does so more by way of gentle smolder than by soul-shaking explosion.

tick, tick...BOOM!
Through June 28
New York City Center Mainstage, 131 West 55th Street
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