The story of Jonathan Larson's tragic death aged 36 just as his magnum opus Rent began previews off-Broadway is well documented, and this autobiographical chamber musical serves as a tangy, touching side note. Originally conceived as a one man show, this three character version was completed by Proof author David Auburn a couple of years after Larson's death.
As well as the struggling composer himself (Chris Jenkins, sensational), the piece also features his frustrated dancer girlfriend Susan (Gillian Saker) and his best friend Michael (Jordan Shaw) who turns his back on artistic aspirations to become a corporate bigwig and it contains much to love. It is also particularly essential viewing for Rent-heads, who will get a huge kick out of spotting the parallels between the two musicals: the rocking "No More" number, in which the two former roommates vow to leave behind their squalid tenement living forever, directly mirrors, and sounds remarkably like, the title song from Rent, while the musical that Tick, Tick… Boom's Jonathan is working on is described as being like "a Hair for the 1990s" which is very much how Rent was received in its heyday. The introduction of AIDS as a theme late in the plot also foreshadows Rent. The piece is set in the run-up to Jonathan's 30th Birthday and the oft – too oft – repeated phrase "Tick, Tick…Boom!" refers to his growing panic at the passing of time.
The piece has an urgency and poignancy that is inevitably informed by what happened to the real life Jonathan, yet it works very well on its own terms: if the script sometimes smacks of an episode of Friends set amongst the struggling artist classes, Larson's eclectic, inventive, melodic score possesses both a playfulness and an inbuilt NYC neuroticism that suddenly gives way to something gorgeously lyrical. It is also at times brilliantly clever, such as in the inspired Sondheim parody which sees Sunday In The Park With George transposed to the hideous diner where Jonathan works as a waiter to make ends meet: "People screaming for their toast / In a small SoHo café / On an island in two rivers / On an ordinary Sunday! Sunday!"
Nik Corrall's attractively ramshackle set suitably conjures up Bohemian Lower Manhattan in the 1990s and Ben M Rogers' rock gig lighting is hugely effective, yet Bronagh Lagan's energetic staging feels hemmed in, and would work better in the larger house at the Park. The choreography by Philip Michael Thomas has some wonderful moments but occasionally feels a bit much for the tiny space.
Because of a slightly tinny sound design, only fitfully do the rock elements of the score truly take flight, the ballads proving much more persuasive. A larger space would allow the score to breathe better: there seemed to be much more musical light and shade in the 2005 London premiere at the Menier which starred a pre-TV fame Neil Patrick Harris as Jonathan.
However, the astonishingly photogenic cast score highly: Shaw, all flash and attitude, convinces as the corporate hardbody who still maintains a core of kindness, while Saker is likeable and sweet-voiced as the discontented Susan, although her brief cameos in other roles – such as Jonathan's eccentric agent, or the flirtatious star of his new show- could be more sharply delineated. Best of all, Jenkins gives us an engaging, dynamic Jonathan who we can almost see thinking: he credibly conveys the chronic self-absorption, puppy-like enthusiasm and even the periodic despair of the artist, yet is never less than relatable. His vocals also rise to the challenges of Larson's thrilling but demanding score. He is a knockout.
The resurgence of interest in Rent, thanks in no small part to Bruce Guthrie's terrific new production which is still out on tour, means that there is a built-in audience for Tick, Tick… Boom!, and, while it's no masterpiece, it is a cracking score that emphatically deserves to be seen. I just wish it was in a bigger theatre where it could cut loose a bit more.
Tick, Tick… Boom! runs at the Park Theatre until 27 May.