Off-Broadway Review: Keen Company’s “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” Explodes with Joy at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row

November 3, 2016 | Off-Broadway | Tags: , ,
Off-Broadway Review: Keen Company’s “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row (Extended through Sunday December 18, 2016)
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jonathan Larson
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein
Reviewed by David Roberts

“I want to write music. I want to sit down right now at my piano and write a song that people will listen to and remember, and do the same thing every morning for the rest of my life.” – Jon

Before Jonathan Larson’s iconic “Rent” had its workshop production at the New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) in 1993 and officially opened there in 1996 (moving to the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway in the same year with the Pulitzer Prize), there was “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” The night before the Off-Broadway opening at the NYTW, Mr. Larson died of an aortic dissection and never had the opportunity to experience the success he hoped for and was so poignantly depicted in the autobiographical “Tick, Tick…BOOM!”

One week before his thirtieth birthday in 1990, Jon (Nick Blaemire) confronts his growing concern that his career in musical theatre is not where it should be and that his chances for success are diminishing. He is struggling to get his musical “Superbia” in front of the right supporters and struggling with writing his next musical. Jon’s angst reverberates through the Acorn Theatre when Mr. Blaemire delivers his character’s “30/90” with an authenticity that defines this actor’s remarkable craft.

Michael (George Salazar) and Susan (Ciara Renée) counterpoint Jon’s concern for the future albeit from differing points of view. Jon’s roommate Michael has chosen to leave acting behind and has successfully joined corporate America. Jon’s girlfriend Susan has decided she wants to leave New York City and move to “live somewhere else. Somewhere beautiful, near a beach…Cape Cod.” “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” is the delightful autobiographical musical that clearly delineates Mr. Larson’s path to success through the character of Jon. In Scene 7 – a monologue scene – Jon reflects, “But I write musicals with rock music. A contradiction in terms.” Looking back, the character’s concerns contradict Larson’s ultimate success.

In overall tone and style, “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” is a distinct forerunner to “Rent.” Keen company has wisely chosen this young musical to celebrate Jonathan Larson’s life and craft on this 20th Anniversary Year of “Rent.” Under Jonathan Silverstein’s visionary and judicious direction, the cast captures the importance of making choices and determining to stand by those choices that are authentic and honest. In Scene 12 – a brief “musical within a musical” – Karessa (Ciara Renée) sings “Come to Your Senses” from “Superbia.” Ms. Renée’s sultry voice successfully interprets the inner dynamics of making choices. Michael joins Jon and Susan in “Jonny Can’t Decide” and Mr. Salazar’s plaintive baritone captures the angst of his character’s roommate. And Jon reflects on Michael’s dying in “Why.” Here Mr. Blaemire captures every nuance of Jon’s journey through grief toward a decision to “spend his time” in a new way.

Steven Kemp’s sparse set design, Jennifer Paar’s appropriate costumes, Josh Bradford’s sumptuous lighting, and Christine O’Grady’s inventive choreography all contribute to the magical quality of the production. Imagine a few chairs in the hands of three actors becoming hundreds of seagulls in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow!

Larson’s “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” is a reminder that everyone – not just Jon, Michael, and Susan – clutches at life knowing it could end at any moment. “But it’s not my fault!” says Jon. “It’s hard for people born after 1960 to be idealistic or original. We know what happens to ideals. They’re assassinated or corrupted or co-opted.” The important musical also reminds everyone that despite that aphorism, hope can still overcome despair. Perhaps the trio’s mantra in the musical’s final number “Louder Than Words” says it best: “Cages or wings? Which do you prefer? Ask the birds. Fear or love, baby? Don’t say the answer. Actions speak louder than words.”