BWW Review: BE MORE CHILL is Cool, Fresh Take on High School Angst
Part awkward teen drama, part eerie sci-fi, Be More Chill with music and lyrics by Joe Iconis and book by Joe Tracz, based on the 2004 young adult novel by Ned Vizzini, is one of the coolest, freshest comedic musicals in years. It already classifies as a cult favorite, and even though it's currently playing on Broadway, you can (and should) be among the first to see New Line Theatre's production through June 22!
Jeremy (Jayde Mitchell), a social outcast at his high school, is best friends with Michael (Kevin Corpuz). The two have a longstanding friendship solidly rooted in nerd culture, and Michael seems to be okay with this. Michael assures Jeremy that kids like them are cool in college, and Michael is willing to wait for it, despite the bullying the two face each day. Jeremy, however, whose home life is a bit uninspiring since his mother left, and whose father (Zachary Allen Farmer) won't even put on pants anymore, feels a bit itchy in his rank. Jeremy also has a crush on Christine (Grace Langford), a talented theatre kid who is also stunningly pretty. And way more popular than Jeremy. Christine, of course, has a crush on Jake (Ian McCreary) - a way, way more popular boy, so as Jake takes an interest in Christine and she swoons in response, Jeremy becomes jealous. When provoked in the school bathroom by a popular bully named Rich (Evan Fornachon), Jeremy learns that there is a magic pill containing a tiny super computer - a Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor (Squip, personified and played by Dominic Dowdy-Windsor) - that, when swallowed, will erase all his social anxiety and guide him into saying and doing all the things that will propel him to popularity. And of course, with this, comes the ability to get the popular girl. The Squip, however, is not free and does not come without inviting a series of uncomfortable mêlées, one of those including the risk of losing his best friend. Will Jeremy take the Squip? Would you?
With a cast of somewhat cliché characters (as they are in a lot of teen dramas) and a fairly predictable plot about crushes and friendship, what makes Be More Chill work stunningly (stunningly, I tell you) is that it is wholly relatable to a new generation of theatre patrons. It includes edgy, modern pop references and sharp humor that extends all the way to Sarah Porter's fantastic costuming and Kimi Short's spot-on props. It features modern-day teen characters who speak modern-day lingo, who dress in modern-day fashion, and who cleverly and intriguingly use modern-day technology onstage.
Notable performances include Langford and her charmingly funny rendition of "I Love Play Rehearsal" as well as popular girls' Melissa Felps and Laura Renfro's "Do You Wanna Ride?" Farmer is a sidesplitting treat as Jeremy's pants-less dad as well as a few other characters including Mr. Reyes, the Hot Pocket-munching part-time theatre teacher (his full-time job is at Hobby Lobby - darn those public-school arts funding cuts). Mitchell has a robust and versatile voice and he carries the show with great strength, infusing his character with painful gawkiness that grows from nerdy to chill to a new and improved plane of maturity. Even as Jeremy grows popular and intolerable, we are still rooting hard for him. Similarly, Dowdy-Windsor nails his role as The Squip, making this strange brand of virtual reality seem alarming and fascinating and real. Corpuz is nothing short of amazing belting "Michael in the Bathroom," a heartfelt, like-wowWOW performance of a song about what it's like to be alone at a party and on the wrong side of peer approval. Isabel Cecelia Garcia rounds out this cast, with her funky dance moves and gorgeous singing voice. And really there are so many juicy, poignant, and truly funny moments in this fast-moving musical, you'll want to lean in and listen hard so you won't miss a single line.
The New Line Band - with Marc Vincent as conductor and on keyboard, Jake Heberlie on guitar, Joseph Hendricks on reeds and keyboard, Clancy Newell on percussion, and Jake Stergos on bass - flanks the stage on both sides and sounds incredible. Rob Lippert's scenic and lighting design is well-calculated for the small space inside the Marcelle, with flashing circuit board set pieces that flip and expand easily. Because it is a small playing space with all those big voices and big actions, it is easy to imagine this exact performance on a much bigger stage. That said, everything fits nicely and feels smartly put together, and even Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack's full-sized choreographed numbers are well-navigated by the cast.
Opening night hosted a mixed-generation audience, including families and groups of young adults, some of whom even talked back to the onstage characters. While an argument could probably be made about the merits of traditional theatre etiquette, I can't even begin to convey just how refreshing it was to see an audience respond so enthusiastically to musical theatre. It was almost as if the teenagers in the house were calling out, "Thank you! You see us!" Productions like this are exactly what contemporary theatre needs to cultivate new audiences and Be More Chill certainly delivers on that tall order.
New Line Theatre's 28th season closer, Be More Chill, plays through June 22 at the Marcelle Theatre. It is directed by Mike Dowdy-Windsor and Scott Miller, with Music Direction by Nicolas Valdez. For more information and tickets: http://www.newlinetheatre.com/bemorechillpage.html.