Keen company

Stories of struggling New York City musicians are as old as art itself but rarely are they interesting to anyone else but the artist telling their own stories.  Cabaret stories abound that involve scrubbing pots and pans or working lousy temp jobs until the dream finally came true. This is not to demean or criticize, but it’s hard to weave an engaging, heartfelt and thoroughly entertaining narrative without interpreting it as a self-prescribed cathartic therapy session-unless you’re Jonathan Larson.

Before Larson catapulted to notoriety with the Pulitzer and Tony award winning musical Rent, he was a scrappy Bohemian who loathed his job as a waiter at the now demolished Moondance Diner in Soho. Larson sadly passed away unexpectedly at the age of 35 on the day of the first preview of Rent.

Prior to that, he worried about his success and chronicled it in the auto-biographical musical tick..tick…BOOM! , which is currently enjoying a return to the New York stage courtesy of the Keen Theatre Company. Under Jonathan Silverstein’s direction, the three person show moves at rapid speed and leaves you cheering for the entire cast.

Nick Blaemire stars as Larson, who opens the show with a cloud of dread about his birthday: It is 1990 and he is turning 30.  The fear of unaccomplishment, aging, and lost time plagues him. His girlfriend Susan (Ciara Renee) presents further complications.  She’s ready to put the brakes on her dancing career and move to the country. Larson’s age-old friend, Michael (George Salazar) is a complete contrast to his aspiring composer buddy. Michael has a high paying job at an advertising firm, a fancy car, and a swanky apartment, but he’s made the sacrifice. Once a promising talent like Larson, Michael has dissolved the dream.

Photo by Carol Rosegg
Photo by Carol Rosegg

tick..tick…BOOM!, which originally premiered in New York in 2001 is not nearly as familiar to audiences as Rent, but one should not underestimate the excellent score. The driving rock tunes are equally as catchy and even more diverse. He pays homage to his hero,  Stephen Sondheim in “Sunday”, and throws in country-western flavor in “Therapy.”  Renee* delivers a powerhouse rendition of “Come to Your Senses”, a heart-wrenching number about Jonathan’s reluctance to continue with his romance.

Silverstein’s staging is effective, but this new version loses some of the intimacy that the original had. Originally, it was announced that it would play in a smaller space at theater row, but due to ticket demand, they moved it to a larger venue. Since the essence of the show is based on a feeling of isolation and stiflement within Larson’s psyche, it would have behooved them to maintain the setting in a more confined area. Here, it feels too open.

Still, there is much to admire here, including Joey Chancey’s fine musical direction.  tick..tick…BOOM! may not go down in history as one of the best musicals ever scripted but it is undeniably a solid one. Keen’s respectable production will prove it.

tick..tick…BOOM! plays Off Broadway at Theater Row (West 42nd between 9th and 10th). It has recently been extended through December 18th.  For tickets and information, . 

*Renee will appear in the production through November 20th. On November 22nd, Lilli Cooper will assume the role of “Susan.”