When Jonathan Larson died in 1996, the 35-year-old composer was within hours of seeing the New York opening of his musical "Rent." Not only did his death of an aortic dissection prematurely end a promising career, but it hauntingly underscored that show's plot about struggling young artistic types trying to make it.
That bohemian struggle also serves as the subject matter for an earlier Larson musical, "Tick, tick ... BOOM!" This bluntly autobiographical show even has a playwright protagonist, Jon, whose frustration leads to earnest songs about, well, his frustration.
One thing that's generally not frustrating is the Red Branch Theatre Company's production of "Tick, tick ... BOOM!" Its three-member cast and three-member band may be small in number, but they bring a lot of heart to their work.
Their emotional conviction makes a persuasive case for an early Larson musical that aptly had a tangled production history. Larson, who wrote its music, lyrics and book, originally did this show as a solo piece in 1990. After Larson's death, another playwright, David Auburn, revised the show into a piece for three actors, and that version ran Off-Broadway in 2001. Although it does not reach the creative heights of "Rent," it does succeed as a thematic prototype.
Larson's surrogate character Jon would like to bring a rock music sound to the traditional Broadway musical. He is not having any success, though, and his impending 30th birthday has him feeling depressed. However, he also keeps plugging away by writing the 12 songs we hear in this show, pestering his agent, and hoping for his big break.
As Jon, Patrick Prebula does a fine job of expressing the character's combination of vulnerability and assertion. His acting and singing largely compensate for the fact that the actor only mimics playing the keyboard installed at the front of the stage, with pianist and conductor Wil Lewis III supplying the actual playing from a perch at the back of the theater.
The other two actors are Cory Jones as Jon's former roommate, Michael, who has given up acting aspirations for a secure corporate job; and Eben K. Logan as Jon's girlfriend, Susan, whose own career as a dancer may involve, er, career moves at odds with remaining in Manhattan.
It's nice that these three actors have voices that blend well, because most of the brief songs require them to vocally share their feelings. They may not all have great voices on a technical level, but their character-driven singing provides its share of emotional highlights.
Where things don't fare quite so well is with the supporting characters, all of whom are portrayed by Jones and Logan. These two actors admittedly are kept on the run as they make rapid scenic transitions between their principal roles as respectively, Michael and Susan, and additional minor roles including Jon's father and also his agent.
Although the script certainly allows for a degree of caricature in these mini-roles, Jones and Logan too often slip into quasi-cartoonish gestures that detract from the show's essentially serious nature. What's gained by way of getting some easy laughs is lost in terms of bringing Jon's bohemian existence to meaningful theatrical life.
If director Jennifer Spieler and these two actors would make their broad comedy a tad more nuanced, the show's humor would remain intact and its pathos would be enhanced.
"Tick, tick ... BOOM!" runs through Oct. 13 at Red Branch Theatre Company, 9130-I Red Branch Road in Columbia. Remaining performances are Oct. 4, 5, 11 and 12 at 8 p.m., Oct. 6 and 13 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $19 in advance, $20 at the door; $18 for seniors and students. Call 410-997-9352 or go to http://www.redbranchtheatrecompany.com.