Mikaela Holmes, Grant McGowen, and Ian Cole in Pinch ‘n” Ouch Theatre’s production of ‘tick, tick…BOOM!’

Pinch ‘n’ Ouch Theatre has a 90-minute ticking time bomb on its hands: They are producing Jonathan Larson’s “tick, tick…BOOM!”, directed by Grant McGowen, running on Friday and Saturday nights through April 23, and I will say up front that there’s no reason it shouldn’t explode. I not only think their delightfully intimate 50-seat theatre will fill up, I think there will be repeat customers. I plan to be one.

You probably know the story (and now theatre legend) of Jonathan Larson and “Rent.” In January of 1996 this landmark rock musical was about to have its first preview at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop. There’s a wonderful photo of a smiling 35-year-old Jonathan standing in front of the theatre beside the “Sold Out—Rent” sign; this picture was taken the day before the preview. I like to think—I know—that he knew it would be a hit.

Later that night he collapsed and died on the floor of his apartment, and the legend of the tragedy and triumph of “Rent” and its creator began, and continues until this day.

However, before “Rent” there was “tick, tick…BOOM,” a show Larson first performed as a solo piece, a “rock monologue,” in 1990. After his death it was revised as a three-character show and premiered Off-Broadway in 2001. And yes, there’s now a fine movie version, but don’t let it deter you for a moment from seeing it live at Pinch ‘n’ Ouch, because it bounces with the joy and longing of creation—which Jonathan Larson felt until his last day.

There are three actors, two of whom play several roles. First there is Jonathan (or Jon), played by Grant McGowen, and he is autobiographically Larson himself. As played by McGowen, he is an irresistible force of nature, distressed that he’s about to turn 30 with no real success (he feels) achieved yet in his life. He’s working on a show called “Superbia” and is headed for a backers’ performance of it. New York shows, surprise, must be financed.

Jon’s best friend since childhood is Michael (Ian Cole); even though he cheers Jon on, he has become a living example of the benefits of “selling out”: Michael’s got a hot job, a new car and a comfy apartment. Mr. Cole exudes the warmth and love of a best friend—which Jon needs.

One of Larson’s missions while writing “Rent” was to celebrate art and art-makers. “The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation,” as a character sings in “La Vie Bohème” in “Rent.” In “tick, tick…BOOM!” he feels the same way.

Larson also wrote the following, which applies to both shows: “Rent” also exalts ‘Otherness,’ glorifying artists and counterculture as necessary to a healthy civilization.” In life and art, Jonathan’s best friend (Michael in the show) comes out to Jonathan as gay; and he (Jonathan) was totally accepting, as Jon is in “tick, tick.”

Jon has a girlfriend named Susan, played by the dynamic Mikaela Holmes (she also plays several other roles). Susan supports Jon, but has ambitions of her own: Currently she’s teaching ballet to “wealthy and untalented children.” Ms. Holmes is charismatic, acts and sings extremely well, and has you cheering Susan on almost as much as you do Jon.

Speaking of singing, all three actors are excellent; the biggest surprise, however, is Mr. McGowen. I’ve been seeing shows at Pinch for some time, and I knew he had a good voice—but not this good: He has range, power, flexibility and can be quite thrilling to listen to. A star is born in his own theatre.

But this exhilarating night reveals lots of star performers—such as the onstage musicians: Gamble, Musashi Albert, Aldo Cardenas, and Anthony McLeod. You mustn’t miss them.

The creative team is stellar: vocal arrangements and orchestrations by Stephen Oremus—who has a dazzling list of credits, including a Tony Award! The music director is Gamble; choreography by Mikaela Holmes; sound, lighting, and costumes by Grant McGowen. The outstanding projection artist is Thien Vuong.

Pinch ‘n’ Ouch may not have a million dollar budget, but they have the heart and pizazz that Jonathan Larson so treasured. I would not miss this show. The final word is Larson’s; and you will not believe how prescient it is. It was written shortly before his death and found on his computer:

“In these dangerous times, where it seems that the world is ripping apart at the seams, we can all learn how to survive from those who stare death squarely in the face every day, and we should reach out to each other and bond as a community, rather than hide from the terrors of life at the end of the millennium.”

For tickets and information, visit pnotheatre.org.

Manning Harris is the theatre critic for Atlanta Intown.