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Review | ‘Tick, Tick … Boom!’ is only for people who really, really love ‘Rent’

No one would know “THX-1138” today if George Lucas hadn’t later made “Star Wars.” The same is probably true for “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” the semi-autobiographical “rock monologue” composer Jonathan Larson performed in the early 90s while slowly developing “Rent” — the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway blockbuster that finally brought him the validation he’d spent his life chasing. But Larson didn’t live to enjoy his success, having died of an undiagnosed heart problem the day before “Rent” had its first off-Broadway preview in 1996. These events and the paucity of material Larson left behind accrued to give the more insular, harder-to-embrace “Tick” a mystique it might never have earned on its merits.

But Larson’s posthumous superfans include some of the most influential artists in musical theater: Lin-Manuel Miranda directed a film adaptation of “Tick” for Netflix in 2021, and the Kennedy Center has now commissioned sitcom-star-turned-Tony Award-winning song-and-dance-man Neil Patrick Harris to direct an upscaled reimagining of the three-hander version of “Tick” that ran off-Broadway in 2001. (Harris himself played the Larson stand-in, Jon, in a 2005 London production.)

Harris has marshaled a blue-chip cast led by a wiry Brandon Uranowitz (a 2023 Tony winner for “Leopoldstadt”) as Jon, an aspiring Broadway composer who’s terrified that his genius shall remain unheralded, and further expanded the canvas by adding four appealing ensemble players for a total company of seven. (Those four voices shine in new, harmony-heavy arrangements of “Johnny Can’t Decide” and “No More,” and Haley Parcher’s sound design brings those enhancements to the Broadway-sized Eisenhower Theatre in sparkling clarity.) The show’s other two marquee performers are Denée Benton as Susan, Jon’s long-suffering dance-instructor girlfriend, and Grey Henson as Michael, Jon’s oldest friend, who has given up acting for a lucrative white-collar gig at a market research firm.

The Larson faithful should run, not walk. But for Larson agnostics, the effect is like being dragged to see a band you’re not quite sold on by a pal who’s all-in. As commanding as the performances are, and as period-rich as the 1990-set show is, you can’t shake the sense that this is still a major production of a minor work. Even with a svelte runtime of 95 minutes, several numbers — “Sugar,” an insipid paean to Hostess Twinkies, for one — remain conspicuously detached from the narrative.

That narrative, tracking Jon’s freakout as he approaches both a long-awaited workshop of his dystopian-future musical “Superbia” and the existential crucible of his 30th birthday, is as littered with false starts and red herrings as, well, real life. (The idea that theater is supposed to solve the all-stream-of-consciousness, no-catharsis chaos of day-to-day existence for us, if only for an hour or three, is one of the conventions that “Rent” challenged.) All would be forgiven had Larson managed to stack this thing with three or four more songs as good as “Come to Your Senses” and “Why” — a pair of late-show stunners performed by Benton and Uranowitz, respectively, with startling nuance and power.

But there aren’t quite enough transcendent moments to make us forget that Larson’s lightly embellished self-portrait is of a well-loved and talented but monumentally self-absorbed artist who’s biggest problem is that he’s turning 30 and not yet rich and famous. Not exactly 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, is it?

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Michael begs Jon to take a cushy part-time job at his firm that would solve his financial problems instantly, and the devoted Susan wants him to consider moving with her outside of Manhattan, a prospect Jon finds unthinkable. That we can muster any sympathy for this myopic and entitled bozo at all is a tribute to the self-deprecating candor of Larson’s songwriting, the vulnerability of Uranowitz’s performance and, of course, our extra-textual awareness that Larson died at only 35.

As a director, Harris is more interested in making the material as accessible as possible than in interrogating it in any substantial way, which results in some clunky choices. At the end of Larson’s loving Sondheim pastiche “Sunday,” for example — set during a long weekend shift at the Moondance Diner, where Jon and his namesake waited tables — a projection of Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” flashes up briefly, underlining the link between the song we’ve just heard and “Sunday in the Park with George.” It reads as obvious for those who already know the context, and confounding for those who don’t.

For all the A/V club enhancements, the number that resonates most powerfully is “Why,” wherein Jon learns to accept that his work must be its own reward, performed by Uranowitz alone at the piano. Maybe the versions of this show that Larson played as a solo act more than 30 years ago were its ideal expression after all.

Tick, Tick … Boom!, book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson. Directed by Neil Patrick Harris. Choreography, Paul McGill; music direction Ben Cohn; musical supervision, Stephen Oremus; sets, Paul Tate Depoo III; costumes, Andrea Hood; lighting, Cory Pattak; sound design, Haley Parcher; video and projections, Nathan Scheuer; script consultant, David Auburn. About 95 minutes. Through Sunday at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre, 2700 F. St NW, Washington. kennedy-center.org.

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