By Tom Holehan

An early work from the artist who gave us the Broadway sensation, “Rent”, shows the promise of a young man who was taken much too soon from the theatre world.  “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is the first musical by writer/lyricist Jonathan Larson who died at the age of 36 just as “Rent” took Broadway by storm.  Written five years prior to “Rent”, this slight chamber musical is a semi-autobiographical portrait of Larson that grows in poignancy and depth as it progresses.  It is currently at the Westport Country Playhouse and is worth a look.

Directed by Scott Schwartz, who staged the original off-Broadway production as well as the national tour, “Tick,Tick…Boom!” follows Jon (a charismatic Colin Hanlon) as he anticipates (with dread) his upcoming 30th birthday.  Jon is a fledgling musical theatre lyricist who has waited tables for years in Manhattan while hanging on for that proverbial big break.   He has a patient girlfriend (Pearl Sun) who is making noise about chucking it all and moving to Cape Cod and a gay best friend (Wilson Cruz) who has given up on theatre and become a successful Madison Avenue executive.  Questions of art over commerce, selling out and settling and the anguish of hitting 30 with nothing of substance to show for oneself, continually haunts Jon.

There is nothing terribly original or daring in the basic premise of “Tick, Tick…Boom!” and, indeed, this 90-minute, intermissionless work often threatens to go off the rails from an overload of familiarity.  But Larson’s moving, often witty lyrics and lush ballads join together to bring freshness to material that is not, on first glance, found in the plot.  And while comparisons with the far more provocative and accomplished “Rent” are inevitable, “Tick, Tick…Boom!” has its own pleasures to savor including a hilarious and knowing parody of Steven Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” concerning brunch at a local diner.   And with the charming Mr. Hanlon selling every song to the rafters, this small musical ultimately has heart and soul in spades.

Ms. Sun is quite fine belting her solo number, a memorable song entitled “Come To Your Senses”, in a style that would have made Merman proud.  She, with Mr. Cruz, also has fun playing other small parts in the musical especially as Jon’s abrasive agent.  As for Mr. Cruz, he seems a tad miscast for the high-powered executive role and struggled with some high notes at the performance I caught.  But he does share a strong chemistry with the other actors and all three harmonize beautifully together on several songs including the show’s moving, final anthem, “Louder Than Words”.

Mr. Schwartz obviously knows this material very well and does a great job pacing and balancing the heart and wisdom inherent in Mr. Larson’s book.  The small combo of on-stage musicians also work their own kind of magic under the direction of Charles Czarnecki.  I did find David Farley’s busy scenic design - which conjures up little more than ugly, junk-yard New York, a bit of a distraction; but Ilona Somogyi’s simple costuming and Herrick Goldman’s adventurous lighting were very much on target.

More importantly, however, is the sad irony behind this touching, modest work knowing that its creator is no longer able to show audiences what else he has on his mind and in his heart.
 “Tick, Tick…Boom!” continues at the Westport Country Playhouse through July 18.   For tickets or further information, call 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.

Tom Holehan is co-founder of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tom@stratford.lib.ct.us.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.


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