Kennedy Center’s ‘tick, tick…BOOM!’ goes off bigger than ever

Neil Patrick Harris directs a bear hug of a production that plays to the back row.

Midway through tick, tick…BOOM!, struggling composer Jon stands in Times Square and laments a Broadway landscape rife with retreads and tickets that have risen all the way to $50 (yes, it’s funny now, but this is 1989 we’re talking about). Despite his righteous indignation, Jon can’t help but long to see his name on the marquee. Fast forward to today, well after composer Jonathan Larson’s premature death in 1996 and the global phenomenon that is his masterpiece Rent, and you could say his self-named hero got his wish. The show that gave voice to it, meanwhile, is now receiving a soaring, big-ticket revival as part of the Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage season, with Neil Patrick Harris at the helm and (perhaps) one eye on a Broadway that is every bit as bloated as the one Larson saw.

Brandon Uranowitz as Jon and the Company of ‘tick, tick…BOOM!’ in Times Square scene. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

As director, Harris presents himself as a lover of Larson’s work, a fact that literally comes through in a big way. The show was already retooled into a three-person version Off-Broadway in 2001 after beginning life as a monologue performed by Larson in 1990. Now, Harris and company have expanded the show further by adding an ensemble of four to back the three principal players. The core story remains the same: desperate for his big break, scrappy SoHo composer Jon (Brandon Uranowitz) overinvests himself in an upcoming workshop of his show Superbia. His laser focus threatens to cut off his girlfriend Susan (Denée Benton), a dancer longing for a move out of New York City, and his childhood best friend Michael (Grey Henson), who recently sold out for a cushy job in advertising. With the specter of his 30th birthday on the horizon, Jon finds himself caught between committing to his art without compromise and following his loved ones down the middle-class road well-traveled.

Under Harris’ direction, Larson’s stripped-down confessional has reemerged in its lushest stage form yet. Nathan Scheuer’s projections expand Jon’s world with detail and color, balanced by Andrea Hood’s simple (but, in the case of a certain green dress, ill-fitting) costumes. Harris and choreographer Paul McGill use the cast to maneuver an array of setpieces designed and assembled by Paul Tate Depoo III, transporting the company from Jon’s apartment to a hotel lobby to Michael’s advertising firm with clockwork precision. To better showcase Jon’s musings in the vast Eisenhower Theater, cameras project Uranowitz’s face during many of his long asides. It’s a nice touch that echoes Larson’s later hero, Rent videographer Mark (whom Harris played on tour), though it’s a conceit inconsistently applied. Altogether, it’s tick, tick…BOOM! played to the back row, much of it with aplomb.

The Company of ‘tick, tick…BOOM!’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Despite these rich layers, tick, tick…BOOM! still plays, for better and for worse, as a one-man show with a supporting cast. As neurotic but endearing Jon, Uranowitz nails not only his character’s writerly anxieties but also numbers ranging from the comically overwrought “Sunday” to the agonized “Why.” The other two principals match Uranowitz with affecting, sonorous performances. Henson gracefully sidesteps stereotypes as a gay man hiding a grave diagnosis, while Benton invests a somewhat thinly drawn Susan with easy charisma. Her rendition of “Come to Your Senses,” delivered in her second role as an actress who catches Jon’s eye, is a certified showstopper. Together, the trio excel under Ben Cohn’s musical direction and share a lived-in chemistry, evident in duets like Jon and Michael’s rousing “No More” or Jon and Susan’s hilarious patter number “Therapy.” Even the show’s lesser entries, like the awkwardly-placed paean to “Sugar,” are played with gusto.

The production as a whole creaks when it shifts away from this central trio. Based on the expanded 2001 version, Henson and Benton would also take on the rest of the roles in the show, theoretically showcasing their chameleonic abilities. Now those bit parts are taken up by a capable company made up of Kennedy Caughell, Kelvin Moon Loh, Yael “Yaya” Reich, and Nikhil Saboo. While the quartet comfortably fills out Jon’s wider world—his parents, his chain-smoking agent, the eager underlings at Michael’s advertising firm—they are sometimes shunted into the background of Jon’s monologues, awkwardly lingering in the dark to provide vocal backing and a veneer of gravitas. For all their contributions, they are neither truly additive nor truly extraneous.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Brandon Uranowitz as Jon; Denée Benton singing ‘Come to Your Senses’; Brandon Uranowitz as Jon and the Cast, in ‘tick, tick…BOOM!’ Photos by Teresa Castracane.

Ultimately, what shines in this latest expansion is what has always shone in fully staged versions of the show: gifted performers taking to a score bursting with raw talent. By that measure alone, Harris’ bear hug of a production at the Kennedy Center will prove a booming success wherever it ends up. What it will not prove is whether bigger is necessarily better.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

tick, tick…BOOM! plays through February 4, 2024, in the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($59–$349, with student rush and discounts available) at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or toll-free at (800) 444-1324.

The tick, tick…BOOM! program is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.

Star-studded cast announced for ‘tick, tick… BOOM!’ at Kennedy Center (news story, December 19, 2023)
Neil Patrick Harris to direct ‘tick, tick… BOOM!’ at Kennedy Center (news story, August 29, 2023)


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