Though he won a Pulitzer Prize and three Tony Awards, Jonathan Larson's legacy is partly defined by all the things he didn’t get to do. The morning that Rent, the young composer’s first show to find mainstream success, began previews Off-Broadway, Larson died of an aortic tear and became a musical theater martyr on the spot. He was 35.
Which means one thing he did get to do in his tragically short life was turn 30. That dreaded birthday provides the animating conflict of tick, tick ... BOOM!, an autobiographical “rock monologue” Larson performed in the early ’90s that was reworked into a three-actor stage production a few years after his death. Now, following an uneven spring production of Rent, Portland Center Stage turns its attention back to Larson by opening the 2022–23 theatrical season with a splashy rendering of that lesser-known work.
It might sound like a risk to pin a season opener on a semi-obscure musical theater curio, but really, it’s a canny move, considering the buzz Lin-Manuel Miranda's Oscar-nominated film version cooked up last winter. Better still? PCS’s tick, tick ... BOOM! does a much stronger job of endearing us to Larson's plight and pulling deep feeling out of the material than Miranda’s film.
Set in the days before he turns 30, the show centers on Jon (Jesse Weil), a composer living in SoHo in 1990 who barely supports himself with nerve-shredding diner shifts. His relationship with his girlfriend (Lauren Steele) is on the rocks, his best friend (Tyler Andrew Jones) is harboring a tectonic secret, and he’s preparing for the workshop of a musical called Superbia whose development has eaten up the entire second half of his 20s. All the while, the clock moves toward 30, and Jon gulps down fears about his artistic legacy ... or lack thereof.
As one might expect from that summary, we’re in a ramblier key than Rent. The structure is looser, the music less anthemic, and Larson mostly avoids making sweeping generational statements. All of this, for my money, works to tick, tick ... BOOM!’s benefit: the stakes never feel inflated, and we’re allowed space in the brisk 95-minute runtime to sink into the layers of Jon’s turmoil until we locate analogs for our own personal and professional anxieties.
That sense of audience identification is helped immensely by Weil, who plays Jon as a gently self-effacing slacker who also happens, despite his best efforts, to be a dreamer. (Andrew Garfield courted an Oscar nomination for playing Jon in the film, but Weil brings a slight, crucial edge to the part that Garfield lacks, which keeps him from grating.) Steele and Jones, who supplement their girlfriend-and-best-friend roles by playing the entire supporting cast, are game partners. Steele effortlessly transitions from grounded to cartoonish as necessary, landing all of the evening's biggest laughs, and her climactic solo, "Come to Your Senses," brings the house down. Jones sometimes fails to breathe life into his dialogue, but he more than makes up for it as a vocalist.
One of the production's most notable elements is its choice of venue. tick, tick ... BOOM! is often performed in black boxes, with actors in neutral clothing and little in the way of scenic design. Director Marissa Wolf, however, has opted to present it in the Armory's 600-seat house, on PCS's main stage. The show begins in front of a curtain that mimics its traditional presentation, but 20 minutes in, the playing space opens up, and scenic design collective dots continues to thread delightful set trickery that's best left unspoiled through the rest of the evening.
It's a bold choice for such intimate material, and if the show occasionally struggles to fill the empty space, more often than not, it soars. Rather than gilding the lily, the choice to hurtle the actors to the back of the room or have them climb scaffolding creates welcome visual depth, and the industrial digs go a long way toward evoking the time period. Some PCS musicals can feel big for big's sake, straining resources in service of the company's perceived place in the Portland theater pecking order, but tick, tick ... BOOM! proves the group's adeptness at making more of less.
Not everything lands. A few songs, like the doo-woppy “Green Green Dress” and too-kitsch Twinkie ode “Sugar” were wisely excised from the film adaptation, and pace-wise, the production takes a few minutes to find its sea legs. The first two numbers suffer from the same problem as the more intimate moments of PCS’s Rent: they cry out for direction, stranding the actors without much to do, and there's a similar misstep late in the game with an awkward staging choice for "Come to Your Senses." (The brute force of Steele's performance, thankfully, triumphs.)
At its best, though—and it very often is—PCS's tick, tick ... BOOM! plunges us into the uneasy headspace of a lost legend and provides proof of concept for one of his most famous mantras. After spending an hour and a half with Jon, witnessing the ecstatic peaks and brutal valleys of his creative career, you walk away certain of one thing above all else: there really is no day but today.
Various dates and times through Sept 18 | Portland Center Stage, $25–98