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tick, tick...BOOM!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 20, 2016

Nick Blaemire
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The sound, whether it's audible or technically silent, is deafening throughout the 90 blissful minutes that constitute the Keen Company revival of tick, tick...BOOM! that just opened at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row. It is, as the title suggests, the relentless emanations of a clock knocking off the seconds in its eternal countdown to a point of finality. Where and when that is, none of those beneath the clock can say. But one thing is painfully evident in Jonathan Silverstein's first-rate, two-tissue-box production: The three people within it can hear it more clearly than they can their own hearts.

Susan (Ciara Renée) is talented dancer, but before it's too late also wants to be a wife and a mother, which she feels she can't do in New York City. Michael (George Salazar) is deadline-obsessed, and proved it by talking himself out of a dead-end acting career and into a cushy advertising job (and an amazing new apartment). Perhaps most significant, Jonathan (Nick Blaemire), an aspiring musical theatre composer, has been toiling away for five years on his musical Superbia, and, a week out from his 30th birthday, is consumed with fears that his version of growing is merely a way to avoid growing up.

Though the entirety of the show unfolds in those last days before Jonathan becomes a "real" adult, as he strives to come to terms with what it means to be a committed boyfriend to Susan, a true friend to Michael, and a satisfying artist to himself, a sadder, more disquieting struggle ended long before tick, tick...BOOM! premiered in this form Off-Broadway in 2001. Its creator and performer, Jonathan Larson, conceived it as his own personal rock monologue, and he performed it around town in the years before Rent made him a Broadway superstar—after his death, which occurred, most tragically, on the night before its first 1996 preview at New York Theatre Workshop.

It's impossible, therefore, to separate the character of Jonathan from the real Larson—and why would you want to? The fear that pours through, say, the opening number, "30/90," is palpable, a wail of longing for a youth that can't be reclaimed: "Years are getting shorter," Jonathan sings, "Lines on your face are getting longer / Feel like you're treading water / But the riptide's getting stronger." But it's so animated and elevated by the soaring and off-kilter notes beneath it that you don't feel you're attending a wake. This may be a man who's terrified of the future, but no matter what happens, he's determined to meet it on his terms and make it speak his language.

Nick Blaemire with George Salazar and Ciara Renée
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Some of the numbers that follow are seductive (the sexy "Green Green Dress"). Some are fraught ("Johnny Can't Decide," in which the hero ponders the wisdom of selling out). Some are comic ("Sunday," a knock-'em-dead Manhattan riff on the Seurat-inspired Stephen Sondheim song of the same title). At least one is genuinely heartbreaking ("Why," as Jonathan explores his longest-lasting relationship—with music). And though all of them are weighted down with meaning, they so soar in words and melody that there's not a speck of heaviness to be found in the entire song stack. Alas, you're always acutely aware of the pure genius at work that would not be allowed to find its fullest, completed expression.

Even that knowledge, however, makes things inspiring rather than depressing. The way playwright David Auburn (Proof) and Stephen Oremus (the original musical director, who crafted the vocal arrangements and orchestrations) transformed the one-man piece into this beautiful, deceptively complex three-hander never ceases to amaze. The way they spin the tale of how Jonathan finds himself just in time for the world to lose him is as moving as you'll find in any contemporary musical, in part because it's inextricable from the ethos Larson himself reportedly lived and described in one of Rent's most characteristic numbers: "No day but today."

No production I've seen since the original (including the high-profile Encores! Off-Center misfire two years ago) has done more than this one to highlight the urgency beneath the uncertainty for everyone, not just Jonathan. Susan and Michael are every bit as important in this conception, emerging both as avatars of Jonathan's insecurities and wounded souls in their own right. Salazar marshals an overeager bitterness, even rage, that so stuns with its concentrated force that you don't mind many of his early lighter line readings. And Renée is luscious in at once depicting Susan's erotic abandon and her homespun yearnings, and putting her arresting (if not huge) belt voice to outstanding use during the climactic power anthem, "Come to Your Senses," that sends a permanent Jolt through Jonathan.

Blaemire is more remarkable still. Though he lacks the earthquake-inducing high notes the hard-driving score calls for (and that were the unique calling card of the first post-Larson Jonathan, Raul Esparza), his singing is otherwise excellent and an airtight match for the broad, grinning personality he uses to mask a gradually emerging darkness within. Pairing this with precise comic timing, he lets you view each of Jonathan's colors at full saturation, resulting in more scenes that elicit simultaneous laughter and tears than in perhaps any other musical I've ever seen. He's also a dynamite piano player, which piles on additional resonance during "30/90" and "Why" as you see and hear, without obfuscation, exactly what's about to be lost.

At its best, the show is emotionally overwhelming, with Silverstein ensuring maximum impact through his crisp, focused staging and smart application of Jennifer Paar's costumes and Josh Bradford's lights. (Musical director Joey Chancey leads the four-piece band with spine-shattering gusto.) Even at its worst, the evening is well above average. The choreography (by Christine O'Grady) tends to be busier than it needs to be, causing a muddling of the lines and lyrics that emerge through Julian Evans's so-so sound design. And Steven Kemp's set, a mostly bare stage crowned with a graffiti-strewn ceiling, could go further into digging into Jonathan's subconscious.

I'm not sure the rest of this production could—it's as good as you could hope for, and a stirring reminder of the boundless opportunities that still exist within life and theatre alike. It speaks so deeply, and yet so affirmingly, of the conflicts that drive us and make us human, that it will linger with you long after the last chilling notes have rung out. It's a shame that Larson didn't live to see what his "other" masterwork would become. But one thing's certain: He couldn't have asked for a better boom.

tick, tick...BOOM!
Through November 20
Theatre Row - The Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge