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Jonathan Larson’s ‘Tick Tick... Boom’ gets fine staging at Porchlight

Adrian Aguilar stars as J“Tick Tick... Boom” Porchlight Music Theatre.

Adrian Aguilar stars as Jon in “Tick Tick... Boom” at Porchlight Music Theatre.

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◆ Through June 10

◆ Porchlight Music Theater at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont

◆ Tickets, $38

◆ (773) 327-5252;


Updated: June 9, 2012 8:04AM

Writer-composer Jonathan Larson seemed to have sensed something about his premature mortality well before he died of an undiagnosed heart abnormality in 1996 at the age of 35. And in fully tragic but theatrical fashion, his sudden death came the very day before “Rent” — the rock musical that would become his megahit — was to begin previews at the New York Theater Workshop, a prelude to the show’s triumph on Broadway.

In many ways, Larson’s earlier work, completed in 1991, and bearing the chillingly prescient title of “tick, tick...BOOM!,” is a smaller but altogether wonderful, quasi-autobiographical companion piece to “Rent.”

Originally performed by Larson as a solo work, it was revised after his death by playwright David Auburn as a 90-minute work for three actors. It is now receiving an altogether bravura revival by Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre, with turbo-charged direction and choreography by Adam Pelty (an accomplished Chicago-bred performer with Broadway credits), terrific pit band-meets-rock band musical direction by Diana Lawrence, and a stellar cast.

It is 1996, and a digital countdown sets the story in motion as we meet Jon (Adrian Aguilar), a “promising young composer,” in a state of self-doubt, panic, confusion and semi-despair as he prepares to turn 30 and is still in classic struggling-artist mode. Living in a shabby downtown studio in New York, and waiting tables while also waiting for his career to take off, Jon is even beginning to wonder about giving up on his dream despite the years of work already invested in it.

Jon’s dancer girlfriend, Susan (Jenny Guse), is pressuring him about commitment and a possible move to New England. And his best friend from childhood, Michael (deft work by Bear Bellinger), who gave up acting for a lucrative job in advertising, suggests he might want to get a day job at his agency. (Ironically enough, it is Michael, who is gay, who has the first brush with mortality.)

Larson’s gift for brilliant lyrics and driving music is clear in each of the score’s 12 winning songs, as is the influence of Stephen Sondheim, the Broadway “god” he worships, and who he brilliantly and audaciously parodies (and pays homage to) in “Sunday,” a song about brunch in New York.

Aguilar, who has made a mark in recent productions of “Hair” (at the Paramount), and in “The Original Grease,” seizes hold of this role as if his own life depended on it, and it should be a career-changer for him. Handsome and with an easily masculinity, he has an openly emotional bearing and powerhouse voice, and is a superbly athletic dancer (watch how he climbs around Ann Davis’ ingenious set). And on opening night, when a real rainstorm pounded on the theater roof at the very moment rain was part of the story, it seemed as if the fates were urging him on in his wonderful performance.

Aguilar is ideally paired with Guse, who can dance up a storm and gives a knockout rendition of “Come to Your Senses.” (She also doubles as Karessa, the sexy actress in Jon’s workshop.)

The clock of this musical ticks loudly and possesses a truly explosive heart.

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