Saturday, June 28, 2014

'tick, tick...BOOM!' Gets a Loving Production at Encores Off Center!

There is so much love onstage and in the audience at the Encores Off Center! semi-staged production of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM! that it grieves me to have to make note of the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda—the source of a lot of that love—is not a very good singer. Unfortunately, it is kind of hard to overlook since this a musical that we’re talking about here, and—when you set aside the admittedly impossible-to-set-aside connection with its creator’s biography—it does need a first-rate presentation to show it in the best possible light.  

Before we go further, let’s take a minute to talk about Encores Off Center! It is in its second season as an Off Broadway version of the well-established Encores! series of short runs of old Broadway shows at City Center. As a new enterprise, it is still finding its way, and perhaps even its mission. The first season saw a concert version of Mark Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock; the Gretchen Cryer/Nancy Ford musical I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road (which I didn’t see, but which Charles Isherwood of The New York Times  called “loving but creaky”); and a single performance of Jeanine Tesori’s Violet, which, of course, wound up on Broadway this season. Ms. Tesori, by the way, is the artistic director of Encores Off Center! 

This year, tick, tick…BOOM! is being joined by Pump Boys and Dinettes, as well as a single performance of Randy Newman’s Faust (featuring its composer), a show which has never had an Off Broadway production. So…what exactly is the mission of Encores Off Center! remains fuzzy. 

But getting back to tick, tick…BOOM! The title alone resonates, given that it first saw light of day just five years before Mr. Larson’s sudden death from an aortic aneurysm on the eve of the powerhouse success of his breakthrough musical Rent, a phenomenon on Broadway with a 12-year run. The version of tick, tick…BOOM! at City Center is the one that playwright David Auburn (Proof) reshaped from Larson’s original “rock monologue” for an Off Broadway production in 2001, for which Raúl Esparza (a very good singer!) won an Obie Award in the lead role. The show is about a character called “Jon” (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Encores Off Center! production), who is on the brink of turning 30 and who is trying to decide whether his career goal as the writer of musicals is worth the sacrifices he’s had to make. Jon’s roommate and close friend Michael (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jon’s girlfriend Susan (Karen Olivo) are tugging at him to hang it up and either get a “real job” or leave New York for New England, where Susan, a dancer, is planning to relocate. That is tick, tick…BOOM! in a nutshell. 

Mr. Miranda, despite his unfortunate off-key singing, does an excellent job of providing the character of Jon with a teetering balance of angst and self-deprecating humor. Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam in the 2012-2013 NBC musical drama series Smash) does nicely as Jon’s gay and HIV-positive friend Michael, who has given up his acting ambitions for a steady and well-paying job. Karen Olivo (In The Heights, West Side Story) raises the roof with a socko performance of the song “Come To Your Senses.” Add to that Larson’s running homage to his idol Stephen Sondheim, whose song “Sunday” from Sunday In The Park With George is parodied in a number about Jon’s job as a waiter serving up Sunday brunch, and there is no denying that tick, tick…BOOM! packs a truckload of charm and heart. Carrying on nicely with the Encores! tradition of always getting the music right, the onstage band is top notch, and the low-key production values are also appropriate for the small-scale musical.

It’s impossible to watch tick, tick…BOOM! without seeing what lies ahead for its composer and to think of him wrestling with his future, so out there for all of us to see. If only Mr. Miranda, who surely can find something of himself in Jon and who is not long from his own breakthrough hit In The Heights, could sing the role as well as he can act it--because it just might be time for a new Off Broadway mounting.  

Any suggestions for who might head up the cast?

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