WASHINGTON D.C. — I would wager to say that all musical theater fans have shows they consider their ‘comfort shows.’ These are musicals that speak to us in a particular way and even if they have flaws we love them in almost any production. Tick, tick… Boom! is such a show for me. Its themes and music really speak to me but I had never had the chance to see it on stage until this weekend. I had the privilege of attending a special production at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC. To say it was a memorable night of theater would be a gross understatement. I sincerely hope this production directed by actor Neil Patrick Harris is put on Broadway because it is something I will never forget and it deserves to be seen by more people.
What makes the message of tick, tick… Boom! so powerful is how it captures the journey of being a creator. Jonathan Larson wrote the show (music, lyrics and book) originally as a one-man monologue in 1990 and in the narrative he shares his frustrations of turning 30 and still not having a success on Broadway. He’s still working as a waiter and grinding out edits on his dream musical called Superbia. Meanwhile his best friend has found success in the business world and his girlfriend wants to move to Cape Cod. Should this be when Jonathan gives up? The world seems to be telling him so but then there is a workshop coming up that could be the big break he needs.
In the 2001 Off Broadway production of this musical they transitioned it from the monologue to a 3-person show and that’s basically what they have put on at the Kennedy Center with an ensemble making the cast of 7. If people have seen the movie with Andrew Garfield (2021) it is a pretty close adaptation except it is missing the song “Green Green Dress” which is a sexy number by Kennedy’s stars Brandon Uranowitz as Jon and Denee Benton as Susan.
Raul Esparza’s take on Jon that we got in the 2001 Off-Broadway cast recording is one of my favorite Broadway cast albums but Uranowitz is right in the same league with his performance. One can’t help but feel his frustration and agony with what can he do to inspire people with his music- or give it a chance to be heard at all. “30/90” opens and closes the musical with an energy bordering on mania anyone who has faced a big birthday can relate with and then “Therapy,” “Why” and “Louder than Words” become highlights for Jon.
Benton is equally strong in her role nailing the 11 o’clock number of “Come to Your Senses,” which she is playing the role of Karessa at the workshop and it is the big song from Superbia.
Harris smartly has kept Kennedy’s production simple with most of the action happening in Jon’s New York apartment. This allows us to just focus on Jon and his internal struggles. The costume design by Andrea Hood captures the early 90s bo-ho chic well particularly in the beforementioned green dress and the sound design by Haley Parcher effectively weaves the city life and Jon’s many phone calls/answering machine messages into the narrative.
Grey Henson rounds out the small cast as Jon’s best friend Michael. His revelation mid-way through the show gives the piece an emotional heft it needs to not just be Jon complaining about his problems. It helps Jon realize his blessings and gives him motivation to keep going because a friend like Michael believes in him so much. His musical highlight is in the song “Real Life” that Henson completely nails.
As people, we are creators. In that context, I don’t know how someone could not connect with Jon’s story in tick tick…Boom! Successfully creating anything is so often beyond our control- if what you are trying to do will even be heard or seen by anyone; much less the broad audience we might dream about. The desire of a creative is to give to people but at the same time we are asking for them to receive it. Larson’s story highlights the struggle 0f giving and asking at the same time with no real control over what the outcome will be.
Of course, the irony of the show is that the real Jonathan Larson would get his big break with Rent and die of an aneurysm 10 days before the premiere. It’s especially ironic that tick, tick…Boom! may actually be Larson’s best work. It’s certainly the one that moves me the most. His honesty about the struggles of the creative journey is something that speaks to me and everyone at the Kennedy Center captured the experience in a way I will never forget. Well done!