Can you imagine what else Jonathan Larson would have written had he not tragically died in 1996 on the eve of the first public performance of “Rent’? At the time, Larson was only 35. When Stephen Sondheim was 35, he had yet to even reach his peak.
In response to the mega-success of “Rent” and the desire to examine everything else that Larson wrote, “tick…tick…BOOM!,” a three-person, 90-minute rock musical based on an autobiographical piece that Larson himself once performed, was produced Off-Broadway in 2001 at the now defunct Jane Street Theatre, where “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” also premiered.
It is currently receiving a weeklong concert production at City Center as part of its second annual Encores! Off-Center series, which focuses on smallish, Off-Broadway musicals, with a fine cast that includes Lin-Manuel Miranda, Karen Olivo and Leslie Odom, Jr.
Essentially a monologue with supporting turns, it centers on Jon (aka Jonathan Larson), a struggling musical theater songwriter who, on the eve of his 30th birthday, questions whether he should move on with his life, as he is being urged to do by his girlfriend Susan, a dancer who is ready to leave New York, and best friend Michael, an out-of-work actor turned high-paid business exec.
“tick…tick…BOOM!” comes off as a self-pitying, sanitized bio mixed with early elements of “Rent” and homage to Sondheim. It also looks pretty naked on the City Center stage, which has been inexplicably filled up with exposed backstage machinery. Nevertheless, this is still required viewing for any and all “Rent” fans. The songs, though tied to a slight narrative, are catchy, urgent and often playful.
Casting actor-songwriter Miranda as Jon was an inspired choice. Even if his performance lacks in intensity, he offers a soft, sensitive and friendly presence. Olivo, Miranda’s “In the Heights” co-star, brings out the fierce edge and confident sex appeal that have colored all her work.
If you go: “tick…tick…BOOM!” plays at City Center through Saturday. West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh aves., nycitycenter.org.