BWW Review: Bennett, Moroschak and Scott Shine in Street Theatre Company's BE MORE CHILL
BE MORE CHILL: One of Nashville's Best Musicals of 2019
If you love theater as much as me, no doubt you also enjoy watching new talent emerge on your local theater scene. Nothing is more exhilarating than watching an aspiring young performer put himself (herself or themselves) on the line, taking on new challenges in a wide range of roles in productions that allow them to hone their craft and, in the process, developing nuances and capabilities which might be unexpected. It's a part of the creative process in which audiences can become engaged to such a degree that it makes theater a more active pursuit.
One need venture no further than Street Theatre Company's Be More Chill - directed by Sawyer Wallace, it's one of the year's best musicals - for just such a theatrical adventure. Starring Seth Bennett, Briar Moroschak and Garett Scott, three up-and-coming performers for whom their futures seem unlimited, Be More Chill only recently closed out a Broadway run before its Nashville premiere, which continues through this weekend.
Bennett, Moroschak and Scott are just three of director Wallace's versatile performers who breathe life into Joe Tracz's script and Joe Iconis' pop music-infused score, but by virtue of their roles they are the de facto leads and the trio take on their responsibilities with ease. STC artistic director Randy Craft, who pulls double-duty as both the show's music director and as The Squip, shows off his own tremendous talents with a performance that rings true and awesomely authentic even as he plays a microscopic super-computer (granted, that sounds farfetched and maybe even odd, but you'll understand as we get further into the nuts and bolts of the show).
Just one show amid a growing trend of musicals that address the subject of high school angst, popularity and emotionally driven drama (like Dear Evan Hansen, Mean Girls, The Prom and Wicked's first act), Be More Chill is enormously popular with younger audiences (well, audiences younger than the average theater-goer) and although its abbreviated mainstem run was shorter than producers may have hope for, it nonetheless will live on for years to come with productions by regional, academic and community theaters. STC, which has gained notoriety locally for being on the cutting edge by producing recent shows, seems the perfect company for bringing Be More Chill to the Nashville stage.
Bennett, who has shown off his tremendous talent in a variety of local productions (STC's The Burnt Part Boys, Chaffin's Barn's Elf! The Musical, Expression City's Matilda are just a few of the titles on his burgeoning resume), is cast as Jeremy, a nerdy gamer who longs to be among the popular kids at his New Jersey high school. Along with his best friend, Michael (Garrett is terrific as the collector of all things retro who proves his loyalty to Jeremy with his selfless behavior throughout the show), Jeremy attempts to wend his way through the travails of high school life even as he pursues the girl of his dreams, Christine Canigula (Moroschak shows off her own astounding versatility, including her previous critically acclaimed performance as Clara in Street's The Light in the Piazza earlier this year).
When Jeremy signs up for the school's drama club (led by Mr. Reyes, played by Alan Smith, who doubles as Jeremy's pants-free dad) in order to get closer to Christine, his efforts are rebuffed (sort of) when she falls for the ultra-popular Jake Dillinger (played by Gerold Oliver). Trying to rise above his station in the high school's popularity pecking order, Jeremy hears about a Japanese pill that he can take which will change his life's fortunes forever: the pill contains a microscopic super-computer that enters the bloodstream and makes its way to the brain in order to give Jeremy confidence, presence and even some arrogance. With Michael's support, Jeremy plops down the cash for the pill on the loading dock of the local mall's Foot Locker and sets off on a life-altering adventure that seems certain to end in tragedy.
The plot may sound outlandish, but Tracz and Iconis manage to keep things real, believe it or not, thanks to a wholly believable script that tells a pretty universal story of a dweebish guy who wants to be a superhero of sorts.
Bennett has never been better - and trust me, he is always impressive when he is onstage - and he shows off some impeccable comic timing while creating a character who, despite his sometimes cartoonish attributes, comes across as genuinely likable. Bennett moves about the stage with confidence, displaying a palpable stage presence that is such a part of his personality. Moroschak is delightful as Christine, whom the writers manage to make much more interesting than the usual popular girl in a musical: she's far from mean, in fact she's adorable, but she is also very vulnerable and relatable. Moroschak infuses Christine with so much appeal that it's easy to see why Jeremy is so smitten with her (even if the term "smitten" makes this reviewer sound ancient).
Scott manages to steal the show out from under Bennett and Moroschak, thanks in large part to his performance of "Michael in the Bathroom," the show's breakout hit about avoiding public humiliation when he's left alone at a Halloween party he's crashed. Scott's Michael is sincere and refreshingly down-to-earth and allows the young actor an opportunity to prove his mettle. Craft's performance as The Squip is squarely on-the-money and he manages to make an out-of-this-world character seem real and charming in the process.
Wallace's direction keeps the onstage action moving along at a fast pace, aided by Tosha Marie's inspired choreography that helps to create a sense of the new and now in what is actually a fairly prototypical musical comedy. Wallace's direction propels the story toward its conclusion and his talented cast follows his lead with sharp focus and commitment.
Smith is quite good as Jeremy's down-at-heels father, while Oliver is effective as the BMOC Jake. Emma Puerta adds another mean girl to her already impressive list of roles with a performance that you can't take your eyes off, and Joy Pointe is fascinating as her best pal/rival/co-conspirator Brooke, who falls for Jeremy even as his star is on the rise. Tory Kocher is great as school gossip Jenna Rolan and Connor Weaver shines as Rich, the bully who tells Jeremy about the Squip's ability to change his trajectory among the high school social media-worshipping crowd. Laura Carpenter, Albert Igbinigie, Kaleb Frey and Dylan Masterson complete the ensemble.
Craft's musical direction lends the production a sense of professionalism, particularly when you hear the score performed by his five-member band (Lee Druce on keyboars, Brad Williamson on drums, Cameron Cleland on guitar, Charlie DeVillers on bass and Matthew Benennson Cruz on trumpet).
Will Butler provides the ideal scenic design for the show, with Katie Del Rocco costuming the cast with precision and insight. Lighting design by Kristen DuBois perfectly illuminates the action onstage.
Be More Chill. Music and lyrics by Joe Iconis. Book by Tracz. Based on the novel by Ned Vizzini. Directed by Sawyer Wallace. Musical direction by Randy Craft. Choreography by Tosha Marie. Presented by Street Theatre Company. Through September 7. For more information, go to www.streettheatercompany.org. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).