Encores! Off-Center Kicks Off Summer With Rousing tick, tick... BOOM!

Encores! Off-Center launched its 2014 season June 25 with Jonathan Larson's tick, tick... BOOM!, starring Tony winners Lin-Manuel Miranda and Karen Olivo, as well as "Smash" star Leslie Odom Jr. Playbill.com was there.

Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lin-Manuel Miranda

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Encores! Off-Center — the summertime series of Off-Broadway musicals which last year offered the triumphant production of Jeanine Tesori's Violet which has since transferred to Broadway — began their second season last night with Jonathan Larson's tick, tick... BOOM! Tony Award-winning composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda ( In the Heights) plays a promising young songwriter, supported by Leslie Odom, Jr. ( Leap of Faith, "Smash") and Karen Olivo ( In the Heights, West Side Story) performing the other roles.

tick, tick... BOOM! is clearly autobiographical, showing a writer named Jon who is very much like Larson, struggling with life and career on the cusp of his 30th birthday. Larson wrote the show as a one-person "rock monologue," performing it in several workshops in 1990 (just after he turned 30). The musical shows Jon reacting to the disappointingly unsuccessful workshop of a musical called Superbia, based on George Orwell's "1984." (Larson, indeed, wrote a musical called Superbia, which never progressed beyond a 1989 workshop.)

The composer then turned his attention to the musical that became Rent, which had its first staged reading in 1993 and opened at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1996, just after Larson's untimely death at the age of 35. Following the international success of Rent, the tick, tick material was handed to Pulitzer-winning playwright David Auburn ( Proof) who formulated it into a three-character musical. The new Larson musical opened in 2001 Off-Broadway at the Jane Street Theatre, where it ran for 215 performances. Raúl Esparza headed the cast, supported by Jerry Dixon and Amy Spanger. Among numerous subsequent productions, Neil Patrick Harris played the leading role in the 2005 London premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Karen Olivo
Photo by Joan Marcus

Songwriter/librettist/actor Miranda brings an ingratiating presence to the role of Jon; he clearly relates to Larson's struggles to find a way to fulfill his early promise as the biological clock goes ticking past the 30 mark. Miranda doesn't have the powerful voice displayed by Esparza in the role, but this adds an authenticity to the performance. Odom and Olivo are powerful performers, and they both shine in their several roles. Odom, principally playing Jon's best friend Michael, also enhances the comic elements with his bits as Rosa (a Flora Roberts-like author's agent) and as Jon's father. Olivo is striking as Susan, Jon's girlfriend, and does an especially rousing job with "Come to Your Senses." Oliver Butler ( Will Eno's The Open House) directed, while the limited choreography came from Camille A. Brown. A highlight of the opening performance, oddly enough, was a sound malfunction. Miranda's mic went out midway; he carried on, heroically, until a stagehand entered with a hand microphone. Somewhat later, a soundman came onstage and replaced the body mic while Odom and Olivo ad libbed to the audience's delight.

There are numerous parallels to the work of Stephen Sondheim, whose Company also centered around the unfulfilled protagonist's birthday. There is also a parody of Sondheim's "Sunday" from Sunday in the Park with George. ("Sunday, in the blue chromium diner" Jon sings while working as a waiter taking brunch orders from "fools who should eat at home instead.") Sondheim himself makes a cameo in the show, via an answering machine message.

Encores! Off-Center, under the artistic direction of Tesori and the music direction of Chris Fenwick, was established to present "Off-Broadway musicals that pushed creative boundaries when they were first produced" with the participation of today's artists. The series is notable for its relatively low cost, with many tickets priced at $25. The 2014 season continues next July 1 with a one-night-only performance Randy Newman's Faust, with Newman and Laura Osnes; and ends with the long-running hit Pump Boys and Dinettes (July 16-19). tick, tick... BOOM! plays five performances, through June 28.