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When it comes to musicals from the last 25 years, Tick, Tick… Boom! is the oddest of odd ducks. It began life in the early 1990s as a one-man performance by Jonathan Larson, who went on to compose the groundbreaking megahit Rent, which transported Puccini’s La bohème into the AIDS-ravaged East Village of the early 1990s. Tick, Tick… Boom! is also about Larson, narrating his life as he was about to turn 30, bemoaning his lack of success and pondering whether to give up his dreams of Broadway glory.
Unmentioned in the show, but hanging over everything, are two facts that every single person in the audience will know going in: that Larson will, in fact, write a successful and world-changing musical, and that Larson will suddenly pass away, from an aortic dissection, in 1996, on the eve of Rent’s first off-Broadway preview.
Tick, Tick… Boom! was re-worked into a full-fledged musical after Larson’s death, which debuted off-Broadway in 2001 with stalwart actor Raúl Esparza as Larson. Featuring a rock-oriented musical theater style that will be familiar to longtime Rent-heads, the show has been revived and gone on tour a couple times since, and was even made into a 2021 movie for Netflix with Andrew Garfield as Larson and Lin-Manuel Miranda directing.
A three-character piece
Now, Tick, Tick… Boom! has received a first-rate local production, at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse, which opened on Friday, June 23. The production is executive produced by Robyn Goodman, who played a major role in the original off-Broadway production more than 20 years ago, and is even credited with taking Larson to see La bohème. It’s directed by Eric Rosen.
As in most productions of the show, it’s a three-character piece, with one actor playing Larson (Andy Mientus), another portraying his best friend Michael (Noah J. Ricketts), and a third playing his girlfriend Susan (Krystina Alabado), with the latter two also playing various other roles. This mostly works, although it’s sort of an odd visual that every single woman in the production is the same person.
The plot consists of Larson working as a diner waiter and lamenting his lack of success so far in life as he prepares for a workshop of Superbia, his first musical. His friend Michael has given up acting for a successful career in corporate life, while Susan, a dance instructor, is pushing him to leave the city and head to Cape Cod.
A tight, creative staging
The story is tightly told, taking just over 90 minutes with no intermission, and the songs are catchy. All three cast members are wonderful, but it’s Alabado who steals the show as Susan, especially with her delivery of the 11-o’clock number “Come to Your Senses.”
There’s some wonderfully creative staging of the musical numbers; my personal favorite was “Therapy,” in which Mientus and Alabado share an intense phone call, complete with tangled phone chords. It’s not only a fine metaphor, but a neat visual too.
Then there’s “Sunday,” the show’s homage to the Act I finale in Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, which is staged here in a diner with life-sized cutouts of Ronald Reagan, the Blues Brothers, and others. The movie was a bit of a mess, but it nailed that scene, with cameos from a host of Broadway legends.
There’s one big contradiction in the show: the stakes for the protagonist don’t actually measure up to his friend’s. Jonathan is a man who grew up in relative wealth and privilege and feels sad about turning 30 without having made it big as a composer, but his best friend Michael has been diagnosed with HIV—in 1990. He therefore has much bigger problems than those of Jonathan’s early midlife crisis. This mirrors the plot of Larson’s Rent, in which Mark’s problems don’t amount to a hill of beans when compared to most of his friends who know they’re facing mortality despite their youth.
In most ways, including that one, the Bucks County Playhouse production tells this story in a clearer and more profound way than Miranda’s film did.
What, When, Where
Tick, Tick… Boom! Book, music, and lyrics by Jonathan Larson; directed by Eric Rosen. $32-$70. Through July 15, 2023, at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S Main Street, New Hope. (215) 862-2121 or bcptheater.org
Bucks County Playhouse is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Assistive listening devices are available.
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