'tick, tick... BOOM!' review: Jonathan Larson reborn

From left, Leslie Odom Jr., Lin-Manuel Miranda and

From left, Leslie Odom Jr., Lin-Manuel Miranda and Karen Olivo in "tick, tick... BOOM!," a revival of an early Jonathan Larson play, at Encores! Off-Center, City Center. (Credit: Joan Marcus)

If life were not so random or so cruel, Jonathan Larson's 1990 "tick, tick ... BOOM!" would be a joyful little time capsule from the early years of one of Broadway's most important and productive musical-theater forces.

Instead, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm at 35 in 1996, the morning before the first Off-Broadway preview of his first big show. As everyone knows, "Rent" went on without him to Broadway and the Pulitzer, forever synthesizing a downtown rock sensibility and commercial theater without selling out either one.

And that's exactly what he was hungering so hard and so lovably to do in "tick, tick ... BOOM!," the autobiographical 90-minute rock musical expanded from his solo monologue about turning 30 while still a struggling artist in New York.

Although this three-character version played Off-Broadway in 2001, it is a thrill to have it terrifically revived, with an onstage band, to kick off the second invaluable summer of the Encores! Off-Center series.

And what an inspiration to cast Lin-Manuel Miranda as Jon, stand-in for the smart, anxious, tightly wound composer. Miranda, whose own "In the Heights" cracked Broadway open with Hispanic storytelling and rap in 2008, clearly understands the achievement and the heart-on-the-sleeve yearning of an artist who really should be his colleague today.

It is hard to ignore the eerie prescience of the ticking time bomb Jon keeps hearing in his head, but the show is a delightful and thoughtful hymn to the possibilities and desperations of young talent on the verge of being less than young. The 13 songs have more of a Top 40 influence than does the more musically sophisticated "Rent." But the work has the quick-wittedness of a man who knew enough to be in awe of Stephen Sondheim, a name he dares only whisper but spoofs in a SoHo brunch satire called "Sunday."

Further deepening the resonance of director Oliver Butler's simple, scruffy and wonderful production is Karen Olivo. This radiant force of nature, who made her breakthrough in "Heights," plays Jon's girlfriend, a dancer weary of the New York hustle, while Leslie Odom Jr., is Jon's lifelong acting friend who sells out to Madison Avenue. So many of the "Rent" themes -- housing, family, multiculturalism, AIDS -- were being worked out in this prelude to the future. If this weren't so much fun, it would be just heartbreaking.

WHAT "tick, tick . . . BOOM!"

WHERE New York City Center Encores! Off-Center, 131 W. 55th St., through Saturday

INFO $25-$110; 212-581-1212; nycitycenter.org

BOTTOM LINE Loving look at Larson before "Rent."

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