“tick, tick… BOOM!” Lives in Little Moments Between Dialogue and Lyric

Deputy Art Editor Zachary Leiter reviews BoHo Theater’s all-trans and non-binary cast and crew production of Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical.


Jenn Udoni

(Left to right) Luke Halpern, Alec Phan, and Crystal Claros in BoHo Theater’s “tick, tick… BOOM!”

By Zachary Leiter, Deputy Arts Editor

At the Edge Theater north of Chicago, BoHo Theater’s first musical since 2019 is an excited and innovative production of Jonathan Larson’s musical tick, tick… BOOM!, which premiered 30 years ago. tick, tick… BOOM! is largely autobiographical. It was written by a playwright whose previous script—and eight years’ work—had been universally rejected as a tad too original. Five years after tick, tick… BOOM!, Larson’s now-famous Rent would open on Broadway. Larson, who died of an aortic aneurysm on Rent’s opening night in 1996, later won three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. Rent has since become the eleventh longest running show in Broadway’s history, and tick, tick… BOOM! garnered new attention after it was made into a movie starring Andrew Garfield two years ago. The challenge, then, is how to bring new life and insight to Larson’s now decades-old theatrical premises: that of the struggling artist, that of the play within a play.

Neither the movie version of tick, tick… BOOM! (directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda) nor the play possesses much in the way of plot. The movie leans into that plotless-ness—aiming for a frenetic pastiche of musical theater à la 2021’s West Side Story. BoHo’s production, directed by Bo Frazier, instead opts for a neatly trimmed, relationship-focused performance more reminiscent of Larson’s original one-man-and-a-small-band show. Here, Alec Phan as Jonathan Larson is joined by Crystal Claros as best friend Michael and Luke Halpern as Jonathan’s girlfriend Susan. Claros and Halpern also play the scattered minor characters and provide backing vocals for each other alongside a four-person band. The result is a sleek, thoughtful, and impressively relatable musical, though perhaps one that could stand to be slightly less sure of itself.

For about the first 15 seconds, Phan was grating. Such complaints soon lose ground. He commands such a spectacle of carefully enunciated word-vomit that one can see a glimpse of the promise that Stephen Sondheim saw in the real Larson in Phan’s Larson. Claros’s Michael represents to Jonathan the suffocated passion that follows abandoning one’s artistic ambitions. The catch, of course, and one that partially inspired Rent, is that Michael’s perspective is quite different; he has just tested positive for HIV/AIDS. This contrast of personal perspectives goes sadly unexplored in this production, which opts for quite a strangely optimistic worldview.

That is not to say that the optimism is unearned. It is the result of a production that, largely thanks to Halpern’s comedic timing, is fast-flowing, quick-witted, and spritely. Director Frasier has rejuvenated Larson’s exploration of relationships with a celebration of identity. This is, as BoHo proudly proclaims, an all-trans and gender-nonconforming production. And with such a reimagining and as much heart as Frasier (and the audience) imbue the musical, tick, tick… BOOM! manages to make magic of the mundane.

Unfortunately, with such an energy-filled and comedic production comes the obvious problem of how to depict Jonathan’s breakup and Michael’s diagnosis. The first situation is handled quite simply and effectively, yet the second lacks the requisite emotional weight. Therefore, the play’s ending—which follows almost immediately after Michael and Jonathan reconcile—feels abrupt and falls somewhat flat.

But if Frazier’s direction is a bit overambitious in its desire to reconcile contrasting emotions, BoHo’s production team—in particular the musical direction by Harper Caruso and choreography by Jamal Howard—has nonetheless crafted a stunningly complementary visual spectacle. Caruso’s adaptations of Larson’s scores make strong use of three actors who are all remarkably powerful backing vocalists. Claros is particularly versatile, and their ability to pitch up from speech to song is a wistfully gorgeous recognition of Michael’s theatrical past. Halpern, though with a too loud upper register, lends their warm and filling vibrato nicely to Phan’s breathless passion. Howard’s choreography makes great use of angulation on a small stage partially filled by the band. Within this production’s strongest musical number—the rolling, rocking “No More” about Michael moving out of Jonathan’s dilapidated apartment—the strongest moment is when Howard and Claros manage to turn a microphone stand into a sleeping person.

This production excels in its ability to understand what portions of Larson’s work to maintain and when to innovate. The cast is small and resourceful, the stage is small and optimized, the band is small, and quiet except when they’re playing. Truly, to this reviewer, the point of this band is to present what it is to be inside the head of a musician, something this production executes very well. They are little people in Larson’s mind, vibing along, ready to jump into song. And blimey, when this musical jumps into action, in those sharp moments between dialogue and lyric, when it’s almost hard to tell whether you’re at a musical or a rock concert, the vision and genius of Larson—thought of as a successor of Broadway greats Sondheim and Oscar Hammerstein—comes to glamorously vibrant life.

BoHo Theatre’s production of Jonathan Larson’s “tick, tick… BOOM!” is at the Edge Theater through February 5th.