The career of Jonathan Larson is tantalizing. All the accolades that were heaped upon him, including three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, came after his death. He died abruptly and unexpectedly of aortic dissection the day before the first off-Broadway preview of his musical, “Rent.”
He is known only for “Rent,” and for an earlier musical, “Boho Days,” which was adapted by others into the three-person musical, “Tick, Tick … Boom!” after his death. Second Generation Theatre has just opened an exquisite production of “Tick, Tick … Boom!” at Shea’s Smith Theatre.
Larson’s early death gives his musicals, all about youthful hope and fear, a haunting quality. The material is both timeless and very much of the AIDS era. Younger and older audiences are likely to respond to “Tick, Tick … Boom!” very differently. The name of the stigmatized disease is not even mentioned in the script, and it is possible that younger audiences will not understand exactly what is being said.
I think that an uncontrollable groan of emotion might have escaped from my choked-up throat when Jon, the central character, vows to be with a friend who has AIDS at the time of his death. Life teaches us that such promises are not always possible to keep.
The quality of the material, which was recently made into a film, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and released on Netflix, is clear. Happily, this production, meticulously directed by Lou Colaiacovo and joyfully choreographed by Elizabeth Polito, with music direction by Joe Isgar, is excellent. The production moves beautifully and sounds terrific. It is also imbued with great wit and penetrating insight.
Sean Ryan plays Jon, a character based on Larson, who is struggling to have a career writing musicals but is beginning to doubt his prospects. A talented actor, singer and dancer, Ryan’s good looks make him a quadruple threat. His performance is by turns thrilling and emotionally powerful. He simply exudes talent and charisma.
Leah Berst plays Susan, Jon’s girlfriend, as well as many other characters. She previously appeared in “Rent” for Starring Buffalo and has a large and lush voice that’s made for Larson’s music. She is wonderful.
Joe Russi alternately makes us bust out laughing and wrecks us with emotion as Michael, Jon’s friend who abandoned the theater to become hugely successful in marketing. This is the latest in a litany of fabulous performances from Russi.
For me, “Tick, Tick … Boom!” provided a wistful and contemplative look backward. Twentysomethings, emerging from a pandemic and wondering what the hell to do with their lives, are likely to respond very differently but just as powerfully. The production is first-rate.
Info: Presented by Second Generation Theatre through June 6 at Shea’s Smith Theatre, 658 Main St. For tickets, visit sheas.org.