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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the March 24, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: ‘Tick, tick… BOOM!’

A stroke of fate linked the great success of the rock musical “Rent” with the tragic and sudden death of its composer, Jonathan Larson. The young New Yorker died at 35, just prior to the unheralded musical’s first preview. Fate also played a part in the back story of Larson’s short life and his collaboration with David Saint, now artistic director of George Street Playhouse, whose connection to the composer and the musical “Tick, tick…Boom!” predates “Rent.”

In the new production of “Tick, tick…Boom!” that opened Friday, March 19, and runs to April 11, at George Street Playhouse, Saint has introduced elements that were not part of the posthumous show’s original 2001 Off-Broadway run. These elements were included in Saint’s notes when he originally directed Larson in what began as a one-man show called “30/90,” then “Boho Days,” starring the playwright and a small band.

This tender, touching, and irrefutably self-indulgent biographical musical is giving Saint the opportunity to once again be part of a project he unfortunately had to leave before it evolved into a three-character musical. For those who have seen and loved “Rent,” “Tick, tick…Boom!” is a must. For those who haven’t, this precursor to that enormous success, this more modestly and intimately conceived musical, stands securely on its own merits. Its run at Off-Broadway’s Jane Street Theater in the summer of 2001 was all too short.

With its bombastic and more personal directives, “Tick, tick” ardently reflects on the composer’s own anxieties and frustrations on turning 30. The clock is ticking and he’s still unable to get the big break he feels he deserves. We see Jonathan, frustrated by his lack of success, consider his options and others’ reactions to his latest and most ambitious work “Superbia” (a real project that Larson was in fact working on), an unwieldy musical that is about to get its first professional reading. Those with any awareness of Larson’s short life and death can’t help but sense the melancholy that infiltrates even the show’s brightest moments.

But whether or not you are a member of the Larson memorial fan club, the easy-on-the-ears music and witty lyrics are likely to impress. Although “Sunday” is an unabashed homage to Stephen Sondheim, and “Therapy” unwittingly defers its melodic line to Jerry Herman, the rest of the score is decidedly and uniquely Larson’s. While David Auburn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Proof,” is credited with putting together elements from three versions of Larson’s early solo piece, Saint has evidently put his imprint on the slightly amended show that now includes a final monologue for Jonathan.

With his California good looks — tall, slim, blue eyes, and curly blonde hair — Colin Hanlon, as Jonathan, might be taken at first glance for a surfer. Hanlon, who made his Broadway debut in the ensemble of “Rent,” does a fine job of making us believe in him as the endearing, anxious, overwrought, impatient-for-recognition Jonathan. His funny, high-strung portrayal reflects both Jonathan’s irrepressible enthusiasm as much as it does his conflicted insecurities, acutely aware as he is of the “tick, tick” of the clock followed closely by the “BOOM!” of a failure.

Sarah Litzsinger, who has the distinction of being Broadway’s longest running Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” is excellent as Jonathan’s girlfriend who tries in vain to lure Jonathan away from a career in the city. Stephen Bienskie, who played Rum Tug Tugger in the final Broadway company of “Cats,” more than holds his own as Jonathan’s roommate and childhood friend who gives up an acting career for the security of a job in marketing. All three performers have powerhouse voices.

What exist as the musical’s most compelling conceit is Larson’s score and his grandiose, largely successful scheme to fuse traditional theater music with the rebellious bombast of the rock idiom. You may say that this is not new (think way back to “Jesus Christ, Superstar”). Yet Larson’s muse (he makes no bones about Sondheim being his musical idol) undoubtedly allows him to empower familiar classical styles with a fresh melodic line and a stirring pop rock beat that is truly original.

Saint’s impassioned direction succeeds in bringing out what was important in a life that persuades us that the best is yet to come.

— Simon Saltzman

Tick, tick… Boom!, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Show runs to April 11. $28 to $52

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