By Lynn Venhaus

In the loving hands of director Lin-Manuel Miranda, the world will know Jonathan Larson’s name as more than the creator of “Rent,” one of the big-bang bursts in musical theater history, because of this enthralling origin story “tick, tick…Boom!”

Brimming with vitality, this brilliant gem shines spotlighting the creative process and the importance of pursuing your dreams. It is the best musical adapted from the stage since 2012’s “Les Miserables.”

Collaborating with many gifted artists, Miranda, in his feature film directorial debut, broadens this early work to appeal to the dreamer in all of us. We can relate to Larson as a visionary full of doubt, anxiety, and drive, who had a unique voice that was meant to be heard. Filled with passion, he pushed on, despite many obstacles in his way.

The young composer revolutionized theater with “Rent,”, but tragically, did not live to see the first Off-Broadway preview performance, because he died that day, Jan. 25, 1996, suffering an aortic dissection. He was 35. Five years earlier, he was writing a musical called “Superbia,” loosely based on George Orwell’s “1984” and full of angst about turning 30. He turned that experience in a rock monologue, “30/90,” which was later renamed “Boho Days” and finally “tick, tick…Boom.”

In this adaptation of that autobiographical musical, Jon (Andrew Garfield) is waiting tables at a New York City diner in 1990, and feeling pressure from his dancer-girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus), who traded in an artistic life for one of financial security, and people helping him put on a showcase of his work.

Meanwhile, a community is being ravaged by the AIDS epidemic. With the clock ticking, Jon is at a crossroads. He wonders what he is meant to do with the time he has.

In his most revelatory screen performance to date, Tony winner and Oscar nominee Garfield displays Larson’s virtuosity and bravado. He embraces the music numbers with abundant zest and connects with Alexandra Shipp as his exasperated girlfriend and Robin de Jesus as his frustrated friend.

The sharp script was written by Steven Levenson, who won a Tony for “Dear Evan Hanson.” The adage “write what you know” is a running theme – and one can see Larson’s style evolving, and his various influences throughout.

“30/90” deals with his feelings about growing older without much to show for his songwriting efforts. Envious of his friend’s luxurious life, he and Robin de Jesus have fun with “No More.”

In one of the musical’s stand-out pieces, “Sunday,” as conducted by Jon, is both an homage to revered composer Stephen Sondheim and a salute to artistic vision. The legendary Sondheim, who was a tremendous influence on Larson, is deftly underplayed by Bradley Whitford.

Several members of the original cast of “Rent,” as well as performers from Miranda’s masterpiece “Hamilton,” many Broadway legends and Tony winners have a shared moment in a Sunday brunch scene. It’s a “Where’s Waldo?” panoply of talent that you’ll want to stop and rewind over and over.

The film’s ensemble is tight, and several singers have stand-out moments – with Vanessa Hudgens singing her heart out as Karessa in “Come to Your Senses,” the show-stopping song that Larson finally pens after excruciating writer’s block episodes.

Another heart-tugging number is “Why,” when Jon plays an old rehearsal piano at the closed Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

If you are unfamiliar with “Rent,” now being celebrated in a national 25th anniversary farewell tour, this musical about Bohemians struggling with life, love, and AIDS in the East Village, won Larson the Pulitzer Prize and three Tony Awards posthumously. It ran on Broadway until 2008, and is the 11th longest running musical of all-time.

But early versions of “tick, tick…Boom!” came before  — and after. Playwright David Auburn revised it after Larson’s death as a piece for three actors (Jon, Susan, and Michael). It premiered off-Broadway in 2001, with Raul Esparza winning an Obie Award in the leading role. It has been performed in London’s West End, with Neil Patrick Harris, and at many other theaters since it was revamped. An Encores! Off-Center production in 2014 featured Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr. and Karen Olivo.

Miranda, who said seeing “Rent” on his 17th birthday changed his life, was born to direct this. He gets it – kids with dreams, brimming with ideas. He was one of those kids — and went on to win Tony Awards for “In the Heights” and the cultural phenomenon “Hamilton.” (You can spot him, too, at the diner. And his Disney animated musical “Encanto” is out in theaters Nov. 24).

As sad as Larson’s untimely death was, this film is full of joy – a tribute tp one of the great talents of the 20th century. Because his death is believed to have been caused by an undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, more attention has been given to this condition. (And the struggles of low-income folks lacking health care).

Today, the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation, established by family and friends, provides monetary grants to artists, with a particular emphasis on musical theatre composers and writers.

This support for creative work is now administered by the American Theatre Wing because of an endowment funded by his family and the foundation. Who knows how many fellow starving artists Larson inspired to write the next great American musical?

His memory and his impact lives on – and his “Rent” lyrics eerily resonate: “No Day but Today.”

“tick, tick…Boom!” is a bittersweet rumination on art and inspiration, and Miranda has made it both personal and universal.

“tick, tick…Boom!” is a 2021 Musical Biopic directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and starring Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, Joshua Henry, Bradley Whitford, and Judith Light. It is rated PG-13 for some strong language, some suggestive material and drug references and runs 1 hour, 55 minutes. It opened in select theaters on Nov. 12 and started streaming on Netflix Nov. 19. Lynn’s Grade: A.

By CB Adams
Contributing Writer

What happens when you take Puccini’s La Boheme (The Breakfast Club of its day) out for a sexed-up, drugged-up, angst-amped joy ride through lower Manhattan in the upper decade of the former millennium?

Well, if it’s 24 years ago, it snags a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Musical while running for an impressive 12 years and grossing more than $280 million.

But what if it’s 24 years later? Do a quick internet search about the 20th-anniversary touring production of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, which opened at the Fabulous Fox on Friday, Feb. 21, and you’ll find a significant amount of critics-sphere dithering about the dreaded R-word – relevance.

Is this Puccini reboot (of sorts) still relevant now that the LGBTQ and AIDS epidemic cultural landscape has shifted in the past two decades — to say nothing of New York City real estate?

On the other hand, is a focus on relevance really that…well, relevant? After all, is Oklahoma and its “surrey with the fringe on top” relevant? Is South Pacific and its hair washing man removal relevant? Will Hamilton still be hip-hoppin’ relevant in 20 years?

Kelsee Schweigard as Maureen

The crucible for relevance of any piece of theater (define relevance any way you please) is, ultimately, time. It’s about longevity. It’s about audiences willing – eager even – to engage with a new production of a show and embrace it anew. Within this context, the relevance of Rent, now 20 years on, is proved by its ability to enthusiastically fill seats, which this touring production certainly did on opening night at the Fox Theatre. The audience demographic was “youthier” than some other recent Fox shows, which makes sense because Rent is talkin’ ‘bout that younger generation that bridges the analogue and digital worlds.

The audience was greeted immediately by Paul Clay’s muscular, industrial set design, adapted for this production by Matthew Maraffi, which provided an effective visual environment that evoked the vibe and spirit of (to cross genres) the Dandy Warhols’ “Bohemian Like You.” The lighting was noteworthy, too, appropriately shifting from candle-lit love-mood to spotlighted rock concert stage. Tucked stage right was the lean pit orchestra, led by conductor/keyboardist Mark Binns, which was seamlessly – visually and aurally – integrated into the production. In fact, it was easy to forget they were on stage most of the time.   

Rent is a demanding show choreographically speaking. It requires a range of athleticism during numbers such Mimi’s Tina Turner-channeling “Out Tonight” to the company’s languid, funereal “Goodbye, Love.” This production is generally up to that challenge, though Aiyana Smash as Mimi appeared unsure and overly studied during some of her pole-dancing moves while climbing and hanging from the railings during “Out Tonight.” Such hesitancy was quickly forgotten after her tabletop romping later in that number.   

Costume Design by Angela Wendt was true to the original and to the 90s era it represented. Costumes were mostly rags that thankfully didn’t veer too deeply into Uriah Heep territory and enlivened with some Jane Fonda workout and Where’s Wally? flourishes. One misstep was the portrayal of the riot police who wore oversized, cartoonish visors, cupped their batons like rural sheriffs and marched like children on parade. That may have been the intent, but it detracted from the emotional reach of their scenes.

The 20th reunion Rent benefits from a strong, deep-bench cast:

Cody Jenkins as Mark Cohen

Cody Jenkins as Mark Cohen provided the connective tissue throughout as both emcee and cast member. He delivered an admirable range that modulated from affable to earnest and, at-times, angry and callow.

Coleman Cummings delivered a strong but uneven performance as Roger Davis. On numbers that required his “big voice,” his voice was strong, meaty and powerful, but in quieter moments he was ineffectively torpid and lispy, even though Roger is not in good health.

Audience favorite Angel Schunard was Pussy-Galored/Pussy-Glamoured with a cat-like, Jack Skellington-esque aplomb by Joshua Tavares. His drag queen persona rightly drew applause and you-go-girl affirmations, but his quieter, sick and dying scenes were equally as memorable for their quiet power – especially his simulated puking. Schunard had the perfect blend of range and moves for the entirety of this demanding part.

Kelsee Sweigard delivered one of the show’s most impressive performances as Maureen Johnson during the “Over the Moon” performance art number. She played the preposterous “milk in the cyber world” scene with a believable, earnest awkwardness that wasn’t easy to achieve – in the same way playing believably drunk is never easy.  

Shafiq Hicks as big-man Tom Collins belted out his deep, resonant, “Old Man River”-tinged voice in all his solos, especially his reprise of “I’ll Cover You.” His best stage moments begged the production make a hard stop – in only good ways – to pay special attention to his performance.

Ditto for Smash as Mimi. Smash’s show-stopping power was evident in equal measures in her dance and singing. Her Mimi shared an impressive spectrum of radiance, assertiveness, horniness, vulnerability and, ultimately, transfigured. 

Rent at 24 resonates a little differently than it did in its Broadway and touring heyday. Perhaps at its 30th and 40th anniversaries will find a different relevance, though audiences may need footnotes to explain references to the Sex Pistols, Spike Lee, Ecstasy, etc.

But, as Dale Carnegie (of all people) once wrote, “Your purpose is to make your audience see what you saw, hear what you heard, feel what you felt. Relevant detail, couched in concrete, colorful language, is the best way to recreate the incident as it happened and to picture it for the audience.”

Yeah, Rent does that.

The 20th anniversary tour of “Rent”

The Fabulous Fox Theatre presented “Rent” February 21-23.