HAMMONTON, N.J. - The question facing the Jonathan Larson musical tick, tick . . . BOOM! is how much it needs to ride the coattails of the same author's more-evolved Rent.

The engaging, accomplished production at the Eagle Theatre makes a good case for the show, which is relatively slight and light, but our appreciation is certainly enhanced by knowing Larson was mastering the pop-music styles in this show before transforming them brilliantly years later in Rent.

The semiautobiographical story is about a struggling composer in New York City who is approaching his 30th birthday and a moment of truth about his future. Any struggling-artist clichés are circumvented when you know that the real-life version of the main character realized his dream of writing music that redefined the cultural landscape, but died in 1996 from an aortic dissection before his show reached Broadway.

Giving voice to that mid-1990s milieu - while Wall Street burgeoned and a generation was nearly lost to then-untreatable AIDS - was so incredibly meaningful that you're ready to hear any other music Larson left behind. (Audra McDonald, for one, has picked up on Larson's wickedly funny "Hosing the Furniture.")

Originally a one-man show performed by Larson, tick/BOOM! was expanded and adapted after his death by David Auburn into a three-actor show centering on the composer, his increasingly estranged girlfriend (who wants a stable, nonurban life), and his boyhood buddy, who abandons theatrical aspiration for cushy, corporate affluence.

The skeletal Chris Miller set and Ed Corsi's compact, functional staging encompassed numerous locales, from the roof of a SoHo apartment building to a corporate board room. The excellent four-piece band handily encompassed musical styles ranging from mainstream power ballads to the intricate "Therapy," a brilliant song depicting Jon and his girlfriend having a civilized fight and never quite saying what they mean.

Tara Novie and Tim Rinehart played girlfriend and best buddy, as well as an impressive variety of other characters needed to sketch out the panorama of New York City. But the key casting was Sal Pavia in the central role. With an amiably self-deprecating boy-next-door quality, he never crosses the line into whiny over-entitlement, and he nails every song he sings.

He's so personable, in fact, that while he narrates his saga, the audience (often plied with wine before the show) had a tendency to talk back to the stage Saturday. Not a good trend.


Tick, Tick . . . BOOM!

Through April 25 at Eagle Theatre, 208 Vine St., Hammonton, N.J.

Tickets: $30-$50.

Information: 609-704-5012 or www.theeagletheatre.comEndText