NEW BRUNSWICK, MARCH 20 -- Turning thirty was clearly the theme last night as the George Street Playhouse closed out its thirtieth anniversary season with the premiere of tick, tick... BOOM!. The musical by the late Jonathan Larson (creator of Rent) runs until April 11th and is another can't miss production from George Street. Unlike many musicals, tick, tick... BOOM! was created for the rock and roll crowd and whether you're in your twenties or have long passed the 30 mark - the show's message will hit close to home.
David Saint, the Artistic Director at George Street, directs the play. Saint, a friend of Larson's, directed the original incarnation of the play back when it was a one-man show called Boho Days. Before the performance, he told the audience that he had spent more time casting this play than any other he's worked on. Although tick, tick... BOOM! only has three in the cast, Saint sought out those who had the true "spirit" of Jonathan Larson. In doing so, he has succeeded beyond belief. By the end of the show, the audience truly feels as if they've know Jonathan for years - even if they have never met him.
Larson is best known as the creator of the hit Broadway play Rent, which received the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Rent also took home four 1996 Tony Awards (including Best Musical), six 1996 Drama Desk Awards (including Best Musical) and three 1996 Obie Awards. Tragically, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm on the night before the first preview of Rent and never saw the heights that play would reach.
Tick, tick... BOOM! tells the story of Jonathan Larson (played by Colin Hanlon) as a struggling artist in SOHO. It takes place in 1990 (six years before Rent) and Jonathan is on the verge of turning 30. The milestone becomes more significant because the world that revolves around him is changing rapidly. His girlfriend Susan (played by Sarah Litzsinger) is a dancer that wants to get married and move out of the city. His best friend Michael (played by Stephen Bienskie) was an aspiring actor who now works on Madison Avenue and makes lots of money. Meanwhile, Jonathan is still waiting tables and trying to write the musical that will set him free.
The casting in tick, tick... BOOM! is perfect. Colin Hanlon is riveting as Jonathan. Although the play is no longer a one-man production, much of the show depends on who is playing Larson and Hanlon is certainly up to the challenge. Hanlon was a member of the Broadway ensemble for Rent and it is clear that he feels a bond of sorts with Larson. He sings lead on all but a few of the songs and shows a wide range of emotions throughout the numbers. The signature song on the night for him is the tender "See Her Smile."
Sarah Litzsinger is wonderful as Jonathan's girlfriend, but it is through the bit parts as other characters that she helps steal the show. Among the various characters she portrays is a brilliant caricature of Jonathan's agent and a hilarious turn as the leader of a marketing group "brainstorming" session at Michael's office. Litzsinger also takes turns as the actress working on Jonathan's play Surburbia who becomes a bit of a love interest and Jonathan's mother. Litzsinger's voice adds balance to the songs that play off the love and difficulties between her and Jonathan. She gets to take center stage during "Come to Your Senses", a powerful song that shows off her talent well.
Stephen Bienskie plays Jonathan's best friend since the days of camp long ago. He too is going through with major changes in his life and Bienskie plays the role well. In addition to playing Michael, he too plays various characters throughout the show. Highlights include playing Jonathan's father, a wacky member of Michael's office involved in the brainstorming session, and his own take as Jonathan's agent! Bienskie takes the lead for "Real Life" - one of the most intense and powerful songs in the show.
The set design for tick, tick... BOOM! is minimalistic providing space for the actors to create various worlds (Jonathan's apartment, Michael's apartment, the diner, Michael's office, the theatre where Jonathan's play is being workshopped) quickly and efficiently. The one consistent theme throughout the set is the use of clocks to emphasis the ticking and loss of time Jonathan constantly feels.
The music throughout tick, tick... BOOM! ranges from introspective numbers like "Johnny Can't Decide", "Why", "Real Life" and "See Her Smile" to fun rock and roll romps like "Green Green Dress", "Sugar" and "No More". The show may lack that one number which stays in your head hours later, but it is the message of the show as a whole that will follow you home. The questions, the difficulties, the pain of losing touch with your dreams and simply moving on are well represented here. This may be the story of Jonathan Larson, but it's also the story of every artist that refuses to give on up his or her dreams. Highly recommended!
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.