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Tick, Tick … Boom!

It's impossible to assess the achievement of "Tick, Tick ... Boom!," the early musical from Jonathan Larson that is now premiering at the Jane Street Theater, without putting it in the context of its gifted author's sadly truncated life.

Jerry Dixon, Amy Spanger, Raul Esparza

It’s impossible to assess the achievement of “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” the early musical from Jonathan Larson that is now premiering at the Jane Street Theater, without putting it in the context of its gifted author’s sadly truncated life. It’s unnecessary, too, since audiences for the show will be mostly ardent fans of Larson’s “Rent” and lovers of musical theater, who will happily lend a sympathetic ear to this sweet, funny and slight chamber piece.

The show is about an aspiring young musical theater composer’s considerable angst at the prospect of turning 30 without having made it big — a conceit that would try the patience if it wasn’t given a distinct, scorn-scuttling poignancy by our knowledge that time really was running out for Larson, who would die at age 35 from an aortic aneurysm, just as “Rent” was going into previews Off Broadway.

The current version was smoothly spliced together by “Proof” author David Auburn from three versions of a solo show Larson performed himself. It has been recast as a musical for three voices, with Raul Esparza, most recently Riff-Raff in “The Rocky Horror Show,” playing the anxiety-ridden young musical theater composer named Jonathan, and Jerry Dixon and Amy Spanger playing his best friend and girlfriend as well as various other small roles.

The show’s navel-gazing subject is a sign that, at the time it was written, Larson hadn’t quite achieved the perspective of a fully mature artist — the show’s central themes are the same ones given more theatrically satisfying life in “Rent.” But its execution equally illustrates how rich were the gifts just about to reach fruition. As in “Rent,” the songs are melodic and instantly appealing, blending pop-rock orchestrations with classic musical theater structures; you can hear the strong influence of Stephen Sondheim, the idol who is amusingly evoked throughout the show, but the music also suggests Billy Joel with an angry edge.

There is a very funny, amusingly structured song about a Sunday brunch shift at a Soho diner, where Jonathan earns a living dishing out eggs and resentment while waiting for his theatrical hopes to pan out. Another clever tune illustrates the blandishments of the good life that his friend Michael (Dixon) has achieved by giving up a dead-end acting career to go into marketing (“Hello to shiny new parquet floors/as waxed as a wealthy girl’s legs…”). Perhaps funniest of all is a country-inflected patter duet for Jonathan and Susan about miscommunication.

Larson couldn’t ask for a more appealing interpreter of youthful angst than Esparza, who makes the neurotic hand-wringing that constitutes much of the show’s book quite surprisingly endearing. His big blue eyes have a recurring deer-in-the-headlights glaze, and he narrates the story with a pleasing, funny mixture of sheepishness and urgency, turning whining into a multifaceted art.

The throbbing vibrato in his voice is just right for the ardent songs expressing frustration and dimming hopes, and he can also scale it down to a sweet, soft croon for ballads. Dixon and Spanger (“Kiss Me, Kate”) are also strong singers and engaging performers, and Scott Schwartz has staged the show with a nice, light touch on a set that resembles a shoebox version of the one for “Rent.” The four-man band sits on a riser at the back, adding their voices to the show in a cute scene in which Jonathan displays his eminent unsuitability as a marketing specialist.

Of course we know the bittersweet sequel to the story, and while “Tick, Tick … Boom!” avoids any sentimental foreshadowing, many will still be choking back a tear or two at the show’s conclusion, when Michael and Susan bring out a 30th birthday cake and help Jonathan blow out the candles.

That may not be the only time emotions cloud our experience of the show, either: Even from the beginning, it’s hard to listen to the warm sincerity and musical intelligence that glisten in Larson’s songs without feeling a pang or two at the thought that his voice was silenced so soon, and that this “promising young composer,” as he sardonically styles himself in the show, would not live to see his promise spectacularly fulfilled.

Tick, Tick … Boom!

Jane Street Theater; 299 seats; $50 top

  • Production: A Victoria Leacock, Robyn Goodman and Dede Harris, Lorie Cown Levy and Beth Smith presentation of a musical in one act with book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Scott Schwartz. Musical director, orchestrations and arrangements, Stephen Oremus. Script consultant, David Auburn.
  • Crew: Set, Anna Louizos; costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Jon Weston; musical staging, Christopher Gatelli; production stage manager, Ed Fitzgerald. Opened June 13, 2001. Reviewed June 12. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.
  • Cast: Jonathan - Raul Esparza Susan - Amy Spanger Michael - Jerry Dixon