This uplifting, small scale musical now playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory is an early work by Jonathan Larson, whose rock opera Rent would go on to be an award-winning global phenomenon.
But though this autobiographical production is shot through with humour and hopefulness, it’s impossible to watch without some level of sadness given that, in 1996 at the age of 35, Larson died of an aortic aneurism, just weeks before Rent received its world premiere. Fortunately the brightness and energy of the writing means that Tick, Tick…Boom! for the most part manages to avoid the twin pitfalls of seeming self-indulgent or sliding into melancholy.
With his thirtieth birthday fast approaching, John is more desperate than ever to kick-start his career and write the Great American Musical he knows he has in him. But in the meantime he has to contend with the usual round of relationship issues, writers block, an agent he hasn’t spoken to for so long hes beginning to forget what she looks like and the constant tick, tick of time passing him by.
As John, Neil Patrick Harris (who once-upon-a-time graced our screens as Doogie Howser) gives a genuinely likeable performance. The role requires him to be on stage for almost the full 90 minutes – fluidly moving from song to song, dancing, and coolly soliloquising to the audience – but though the poor lad’s T-shirt is practically saturated with sweat by the end of the night, he makes it all seem incredibly effortless and the generous nature of his performance means his character never once loses that agreeable everyman quality.
His singing voice, whilst always pleasant, is not outstanding, but this just adds to John’s charm. The vocal acrobatics are left to Cassidy Janson, as his girlfriend Susan, and Tee Jaye, as his best friend Michael. (They also take on all the supporting characters to often comedic effect). Janson plays Susan with a similar level of warmth that Harris gives to John and Jaye is also very good as Michael, John’s gay childhood friend who has recently chucked in a stalled acting career for a lucrative position in market research.
Though Susan’s justifiable desire for a little more stability in her relationship provides a touch of narrative tension, actually the plot is pretty minimal; the best songs are drawn out from the joys of visiting Michael’s swanky new apartment or from grabbing a sneaky sugar fix before a rehearsal. As a result a major revelation from one of the characters towards the end seems rather unnecessary. This unexpected change in tone feels as if it were dropped in to give the play a little more dramatic weight, as if Larson suddenly worried that his sweet, if self-involved, musings on friendship and creativity weren’t quite enough to sustain things.
Playing out on a simple urban set with a sketchy New York skyline as a backdrop, the production seems incredibly well suited for the Chocolate Factory, a venue which is really proving to be one of the capital’s most exciting Off West End spaces.
Tick, Tick…Boom! is a genuinely uplifting musical and well worth traipsing down to London Bridge to investigate. Real life events may have contrived to give the proceedings a desperate poignancy but the overall feeling that you will be left with is one of excitement and hope.