“tick, tick…BOOM!” is a lively, touching rock musical

Three people on stage. The person in the middle has his arms in the air.
The company in the 2024 production of tick, tick...BOOM! at George Street Playhouse (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Jonathan Larson (1960-1996) is best remembered for his groundbreaking musical Rent. By now everyone’s heard the story: after years of rejection, Larson got his show produced only to pass away the night before its first preview. 

Fortunately, Larson wrote another show, tick, tick…BOOM!. It’s a semi-autobiographical piece set in 1990 New York about a struggling artist, Jon (Daniel Marconi), whose 30th birthday is quickly approaching (“Thirty/Ninety”).

A workshop production of his latest creation is coming up. His girlfriend Susan (Cathryn Wake), having given up her dream of a dance career for teaching dance, increasingly sees her relationship with Jon stagnating (“Therapy”). His best friend Michael (John Yi), having left acting behind for a corporate job, is pressing Jon to enter the corporate world with him (“No More”). Jon, hearing the clock ticking, is questioning his life choices (“Johnny Can’t Decide”). With his parents (Yi and Wake) offering him a place to live with them back in New Jersey, his manager (Wake) lining up her influential friends to attend his workshop, and Susan pressing him about marriage and a move out of state, Jon feels hope for his chosen career but also despair that his life and dreams will slip away from him.

The company on stage at a table. One behind and the other two are on each end.
The company in the 2024 production of tick, tick…BOOM! at George Street Playhouse (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Artistic Director David Saint, who had collaborated with Larson, not only directs with his usual skill but adds a level of emotional connection and respect for the material. Combined with the choreography of Christopher Rice-Thomson, Saint has come up with a fast-paced, energetic staging that makes a perfect fit with Larson’s rocking score — but also knows how to take time with more reflective moments.

The cast is uniformly wonderful. Marconi’s Jon is sweetly neurotic about his approaching birthday, seeing himself a failure as a theater composer. Wake’s Susan beautifully traverses the emotional minefield of having to seriously consider her future, with or without Jon in it. She also mines comedy playing Jon’s agent and his mother, and scores big as Carissa, an actress in Jon’s workshop, with the power anthem “Come to Your Senses”. Yi is a comic delight not only as Michael but as Jon’s father as well as in various other small parts.

The set, designed by Travis George and lit by Ryan O’Gara, creatively suggests various locations in and around Manhattan. Lisa Zinni’s costumes give a sense of character and time; especially beautiful are a form-fitting green velvet dress for Susan and a silver-spangled costume for Carissa’s big number.

tick, tick…BOOM! is a rare treasure, a rock musical that appeals to the dreamer in all of us, especially those who have not yet achieved their dreams. It is lively and life-affirming. It is a tribute to Jonathan Larson, taken from us all too soon, and his incredible talents as a musical story-teller. In its book and especially its music, this show is impactful and life-affirming. I most strongly urge you to see tick, tick…BOOM! before its limited run comes to a close.

tick, tick…BOOM! is presented by the George Street Playhouse at the Arthur Laurents Theatre in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through May 19th, 2024. For more information, or to buy tickets, go to georgestreetplayhouse.org or call 732-246-7717.