Despite winning a Pulitzer Prize and three Tony Awards, Jonathan Larson’s legacy is partly defined by all the things he couldn’t do. the morning that Lease, the young composer’s first show to achieve mainstream success, began Off-Broadway previews, Larson died of a torn aortic and became a martyr to musical theater on location. He was 35 years old.
Which means one thing that he did do in his tragically short life was to turn 30. This dreaded anniversary provides the lively conflict of tick, tick… BOOM!an autobiographical “rock monologue” that Larson performed in the early 90s, which was reworked into a three-actor stage production a few years after his death. Now, following an uneven spring production of LeasePortland Center Stage turns its attention to Larson by opening the 2022-23 theater season with a vivid rendition of this lesser-known work.
It might seem like a risk to pin a season opener on a semi-obscure musical theater oddity, but really, it’s a smart move, given the buzz. by Lin-Manuel Miranda Oscar-nominated film version cooked last winter. Even better? PCS tick, tick ... BOOM! does a much better job of making us love Larson’s plight and drawing deep feeling from the material than Miranda’s film.
Set in the days before his 30th birthday, the show centers on Jon (Jesse Weil), a songwriter living in SoHo in 1990 who barely supports himself with nerve-wracking dinner shifts. His relationship with his girlfriend (Lauren Steele) is on the rocks, his best friend (Tyler Andrew Jones) is hiding a tectonic secret, and he’s preparing for the workshop of a musical called Superb whose development engulfed the entire second half of its 20 years. All the while, the clock is ticking towards 30, and Jon is swallowing his fears about his artistic legacy…or lack thereof.
As you might expect from this summary, we’re in a more rambling key than Lease. The structure is looser, the music less anthemic, and Larson mostly avoids making sweeping generational statements. All this, for my money, works for tick, tick… BOOM!it is Upside: The stakes never feel inflated, and we have space in the fast-paced 95-minute runtime to sink into the layers of Jon’s hustle and bustle until we find analogues for our own personal and professional anxieties.
This sense of audience identification is helped enormously by Weil, who plays Jon as a gently erased slacker who also happens, despite his best efforts, to be a daydreamer. (Andrew Garfield courted an Oscar nomination for playing Jon in the film, but Weil brings a crucial slight edge to the part that keeps him from cringing.) Steele and Jones, who complete their roles as girlfriend and best friend playing the entire supporting cast, are acting partners. Steele effortlessly transitions from earth to comic when needed, landing all the biggest laughs of the night, and his climactic solo, “Come to Your Senses” , brings down the house. Jones sometimes fails to bring his dialogue to life, but he more than makes up for it as a vocalist.
One of the most notable elements of the production is its choice of location. tick, tick… BOOM! is often performed in black boxes, with actors dressed in neutral clothing and little scenic design. Director Marissa Wolf, however, chose to present it in the Armory’s 600-seat house on the main stage of PCS. The show begins in front of a curtain that mimics its traditional presentation, but 20 minutes later the play space opens up and the collective stage design stitches continue to thread delightful trickery best left untouched for the rest. of the evening.
It’s a bold choice for such intimate material, and while the show sometimes struggles to fill the empty space, more often than not it soars. Rather than gilding the lily, the choice of rushing the actors to the back of the room or having them climb on scaffolding creates a welcome visual depth, and the industrial excavations contribute greatly to evoking the period. Some PCS musicals may seem big for good, straining resources in service of the company’s perceived place in the Portland theater pecking order, but tick, tick… BOOM! demonstrates the group’s ability to do more with less.
Not everything works so well. A few songs, like the doo-woppy “Green Green Dress” and the overly kitsch Twinkie ode “Sugar” were wisely dropped from the film adaptation, and in terms of rhythm, the production takes a few minutes to find its sea legs. The first two issues suffer from the same problem as the more intimate moments of PCS Lease: they shout at the direction, blocking the actors without plenty to do, and there’s a similar misstep late in the game with an awkward choice of direction for “Come to Your Senses.” (The brute force of Steele’s performance, thankfully, triumphs.)
At its best, however – and it very often is – PCS tick, tick… BOOM! immerses us in the uneasy mental space 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 and witnessing the ecstatic peaks and brutal valleys of his creative career, you come away certain of one thing above all else: there really is no day but today.
tick, tick… BOOM!
Various dates and times until September 18 | Portland Central Stage, $25–98