When Jonathan Larson wrote tick, tick ... BOOM!, the ticking clock he was referring to was his anxiety over his impending 30th birthday. But a few years later, the gifted musical-theater composer was felled by a blow he never anticipated - a fatal aortic aneurysm in 1996.
It is among the tragedies of Broadway history that Larson didn't live to see his musical, Rent, strike it big (Pulitzer Prize, multiple Tony Awards). Nor did he get a chance to follow its success with more musicals. But while audiences will never know what Larson, who was also a talented lyricist and librettist, would have gone on to create, they can see what came before.
tick, tick ... BOOM! - running through Sunday at the Mechanic Theatre - is the smaller, quieter brother of bombastic, hard-driving Rent. Actually, tick, tick started out even smaller. After being unable to secure a production of his large-scale, futuristic musical Superbia, Larson went in the opposite direction and created an autobiographical, one-man musical.
That musical monologue is what director Scott Schwartz, orchestrator and arranger Stephen Oremus and script consultant David Auburn restructured into a 90-minute, three-person show centered on a character named Jonathan, who is going through a "pre-midlife crisis."
The similarities to Rent are apparent as soon as you see designer Anna Louizos' gritty, urban-influenced set, with its cityscape collage backdrop. Once again, the focus is the starving artist living in bohemian squalor and struggling to remain true to his art, despite the influence of friends who have made other choices. But while Rent is an ensemble piece, tick, tick zeroes in on one character's story - Jonathan's.
Christian Campbell portrays Jonathan with boyish appeal. In the number, "No More," when he and his best friend, Michael, dance jubilantly around Michael's swanky new East Side apartment, they're like a couple of giddy kids whose parents have left them home alone for the first time.
Michael - played by Wilson Cruz as more a practical and, therefore, seemingly more mature young man - has recently given up all hope of making it as an actor and joined the corporate world, a path he strongly encourages Jonathan to take as well. Meanwhile, Jonathan's girlfriend, Susan (Nicole Ruth Snelson), a dancer, is urging him to move to New England with her.
Jonathan, however, is pinning his hopes on a workshop production of Superbia. We attend part of this workshop and hear one of its songs, a rock number with the chastising title, "Come to Your Senses," belted by Snelson, who also plays the workshop's star.
As this scene suggests, tick, tick ... BOOM! has a strong theater-insider streak that will warm the hearts of musical theater fans. For example, there are repeated references to Larson's idol and mentor, Stephen Sondheim, and the show's funniest number, "Sunday," set in the diner where Jonathan works as a waiter, is a wonderful spoof/homage to Sondheim's song of the same name from Sunday in the Park with George.
But the show also contains enough universal themes - growing older, achieving your ambitions, maintaining relationships - to be readily accessible to a wider audience. There's also a fairly wide range to Larson's musical styles and subject matter, from the country-western-flavored "Therapy," to "Sugar," a paean to the glories of Hostess Twinkies.
Under Schwartz' fluid direction, Campbell, Snelson and Cruz (who, like Snelson, also plays multiple small roles) work together with the ease of old friends, and their voices and crisp diction do justice to Larson's songs, as does the accompaniment of the four-man on-stage band. (Unlike some over-amplified incarnations of Rent, this is a touring production that allows you to hear every word).
"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," Jonathan tells Susan early on in tick, tick ... BOOM! Larson held fast to that dream, though it was cut short. With its roster of memorable songs, this chamber musical is one more indication of his spirit and talent.
tick, tick ... BOOM!
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza
When: 8 p.m. today-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday