New York’s summer season is in full swing, meaning that while Broadway is relatively quiet in terms of openings, there’s plenty happening elsewhere, from the concert stages of Central Park and various downtown music festivals (last week’s Bang On A Can having been just one great example) to the two events covered here: The smashing second-season launch of Encores! Off-Center series — a complement to City Center’s hugely successful Encores! franchise — and the annual concert by tap master Savion Glover, now a tradition at the invaluable Joyce Theatre in Chelsea.
Off-Center, run by composer Jeanine Tesori, began Wednesday night with tick, tick…Boom!, which Jonathan Larson was working on at the time of his death in 1996, just shy of his 36th birthday and just after the first preview of Rent. This autobiographical song cycle — about a young composer-lyricist facing the possibility of failure, the pressure to move on, the doubts of even those who care most about him — was fleshed out posthumously by David Auburn and had a successful off-Broadway run in the shadow of the blockbuster success of Rent. It’s impossible to watch it divorced from the knowledge so many of us share about what an incalculable loss was Larson’s death (from an aortic aneurysim). That, like Rent, tick, tick…Boom! fibrillates with emotional intelligence, deep feeling and fantastic songwriting only makes the experience of this wonderful, too-brief revival all the more haunting.
In a knockout bit of casting bliss, Lin-Manuel Miranda (In The Heights, the coming Hamilton) plays the central role of Jon. Karen Olivo, his co-star from In The Heights, and Leslie Odom Jr. play Susan and Michael, Jon’s girlfriend and best friend, respectively. Miranda, who struggled somewhat in an earlier Encores! outing (Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along) is perfectly cast here, bringing warmth, humor and an irresistible quality of connection to a role clearly close to his own heart. (The audience on Wednesday night roared with support when a foul-up with his microphone stopped the show briefly and he returned with a line Pirandello couldn’t have written better about the rehearsal going well in advance of a Thursday opening).
Olivo and Odom were equally persuasive in navigating a score that, like Rent‘s, is full to bursting with one terrific number after another, though I found the unlovable sound particularly unflattering to Olivo, whose big number, “Come To Your Senses,” was pitch-perfect but shrill.
There are only a few more performances of tick, tick…Boom! Don’t miss it. It’s followed by a one-night concert of Randy Newman’s Faust, a terrific score that never made it to Broadway after a tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse many years ago, and the endearing Pump Boys And Dinettes. Brava, Jeanine.
A protege of the late Gregory Hines, Glover has been a legend since his Broadway debut in The Tap Dance Kid. As the consummate technician, theorist and artist of tap, he is incomparable, and he’s spent his life sharing his passion for the art through performance and teaching. His now annual concerts at the Joyce are like conversations over the years with fans, fellow performers and historians of the form, and they’ve followed his own growth as an artist.
This year’s edition is Om, and as the title suggests, it finds the dancer in a reflective mood. He’s at center stage, surrounded by votive candles, dancers in various meditative poses and his longtime dance partner, Marshall Davis Jr., for nearly all of the show’s 80 minutes. Also present: images of Glover’s heroes, including Hines, of course, along with Mahatma Gandhi, Michael Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jimmy Slyde.
As a demonstration of Glover’s unearthly, inexhaustible talent — for speed, deftness, the sheer quality of characterization he brings to the percussive impact of steel-tapped toe and heel on amplified floor — Om is breathtaking. The music seems heavily influenced by John Coltrane (I heard at least one phrase from “A Love Supreme” at the end). As performance, however, it verges on torture. There is almost no interaction with the abandoned souls on stage, let alone the audience; I haven’t experienced such disdain for everyone around a star since Miles Davis in his later years played with his back defiantly turned to the audience. Glover may be making a point about prayer, but to my mind it had nothing to do with the communasl nature of dance or theater. It was pure solipsism.