“Rent” Creator Jonathan Larson Battles His Way Toward Broadway in “tick, tick…BOOM!”

Portland Center Stage’s production is an unqualified triumph.

tick tick...BOOM! (Shawnte Sims)

It’s fitting that Portland Center Stage chose to kick off its 35th season with tick, tick…BOOM!, a play about how people mark the milestones in their lives. More importantly, it’s a story about the feeling of time being stolen—a theme that will resonate with anyone who’s survived the past few years.

Tick, tick…BOOM!, the second musical by Jonathan Larson, is a semi-autobiographical look at the playwright’s struggles as a young artist, days away from his 30th birthday and not yet having achieved the Broadway stardom he hungers for. In real life, Larson reached that mountaintop in 1996 with the genre-redefining Rent, only to die of an aortic aneurysm at age 35 on the night before the show’s first preview.

Rent and tick, tick are both about creative types attempting to fulfill their artistic ambitions amid the harsh realities of capitalism and the AIDS crisis. Rent , however, positions itself as a definitive statement on Gen-X counterculture, whereas tick, tick benefits from having a smaller, more personal scope. It’s Jon’s quarter-life crisis, and we’re just along for the ride.

If your only experience with tick, tick is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2021 film adaptation, you may be surprised to find the play is a different beast. Directed by Portland Center Stage artistic director Marissa Wolf, tick, tick is consciously staged like a nonprofessional show. The set is mostly limited to a couch and some folding chairs, and the actors never leave the stage (they go off to the side to change costumes or wait for their next cue).

The goal is apparently to capture the experience of seeing amateur theater works like Superbia, the ambitious sci-fi musical Jon is working on during the show. While there’s dissonance between the scrappiness of Jon’s world and the professionalism of Portland Center Stage, the story, music and actors are enjoyable enough to get you over any bump in the road.

The cast is limited to only three actors: Jesse Weil as Jon, Tyler Andrew Jones as his best friend Michael and Lauren Steele as his girlfriend Susan. While the trio have a well-earned sense of camaraderie, it’s Weil who shines the brightest. He leads with a vulnerability and weariness that grounds Jon, allowing his struggles to connect with anyone trying to figure out how to be a grown-up as they go.

Musically, one of Larson’s goals was to bring a modern rock-’n’-roll sensibility to Broadway—and tick, tick is a prime example. The setlist has a fun, poppy energy, which is broken up by piano ballads whenever things get too comfortable. There are a few extraneous numbers, but given that the show is a breezy 90 minutes, that can be forgiven. After all, if you can’t write a song about a lousy customer service job or a secret Twinkie addiction, what’s the point in being a songwriter?

Tick, tick…BOOM! is a triumph: a well-written, well-acted jam about art, aging, adoration, anxiety and everything in between. The play may not be as influential as Rent, which endures as its more famous younger sibling, but it benefits from the intimacy of its singular story. Ironically, that’s what makes it relatable 30 years on.

SEE IT: Tick, tick ... BOOM! plays at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave., 503-445-3700, pcs.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Sunday, 2 pm Saturday-Sunday, 2 pm select Thursdays, through Sept. 18. $25-$98.

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