Review: Brilliant BE MORE CHILL at Monumental Theatre Company

By: Jul. 15, 2019
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Review: Brilliant BE MORE CHILL at Monumental Theatre Company
Ben Ribler and Christian Montgomery

Jeremy Heere is a socially-awkward, hopelessly uncool student languishing at the bottom rung of the high school's social ladder. "I don't want to be special, I just want to survive," he sings in the opening number of Be More Chill, a show that makes its Washington-area premiere in a wonderfully effervescent and wholehearted Monumental Theatre Company production.

Jeremy's life involves computer games with his best friend Michael, attending drama auditions just to cross paths with his crush Christine, and begging his perpetually trouserless dad to put on the pants he's forsaken since Jeremy's mom walked out on the family.

Jeremy stumbles upon an easy way to change all that - a tiny supercomputer he can gulp down like a pill with a little Mountain Dew chaser that will guide him toward becoming cool. The computer, called the SQUIP or Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor, implants itself in his brain and offers instruction on what to wear, do, and say to be accepted.

Review: Brilliant BE MORE CHILL at Monumental Theatre Company
Caroline Dubberly and Ben Ribler

At the outset, Jeremy enjoys his newfound popularity. Soon, though, he discovers the darker consequences of following all that the SQUIP instructs. In the process, Jeremy discovers that he is not the only one searching for a way to connect and fit in - all those surrounding him are struggling for acceptance.

Be More Chill, with music and lyrics by Joe Iconis and book by Joe Tracz, has generated a lot of buzz nationally since the 2015 regional premiere. The show's cast album became a viral hit, streamed more than 150 million times. A limited off-Broadway production last year led to a Broadway transfer (resulting in a Tony nomination for best score) and a Hollywood film deal. Five-year-old Monumental Theatre Company scored a coup with the DC premiere, securing the rights to stage the show using the script from its debut at New Jersey's Two River Theatre. "When [Be More Chill] got to Broadway, it got to feel all the Broadway feelings, and became bright and huge and big," says director Izzy Smelkinson. "We're bringing it back down, almost to where it started, in a black box, with everyone around you, and really following the heart and story of who we are as people."

Review: Brilliant BE MORE CHILL at Monumental Theatre Company
Christian Montgomery and the Be More Chill cast

At the successful center of Monumental Theatre Company's production is its appealing, able, and charismatic cast. Director Izzy Smelkinson has assembled an ensemble of exceptionally talented and engaging artists. Ben Ribler, as Jeremy, brings to life the vulnerability and sensitivity of the confused teen. Our hearts go out to him. Christian Montgomery as Michael is a wonderful teddy bear of a pal soon left behind as the SQUIP blocks the friend from Jeremy's vision to achieve his rise to popularity. Montgomery brings down the house with the deeply affecting song, "Michael in the Bathroom." Jyline Carranza is a bubbly, earnest, kind, and thoroughly likeable Christine; her voice is glorious. The SQUIP is played with cool calculation and strength by Caroline Dubberly.

Review: Brilliant BE MORE CHILL at Monumental Theatre Company
Allison Bradbury, Molly Rumberger,
Jyline Carranza, and Geocel Batista

Geocel Batista as Brooke and Molly Rumberger as Chloe are paired wonderfully as two of the school's ruling queen bees, all aflutter with flirtation, backstabbing, and gossip. Allison Bradbury as Jenna stirs the pot with rumors and innuendo. Nigel Rowe as Rich has his own battles - internal, with his family, and with his own ever-strengthening SQUIP. Jonathan Helwig brings equal parts goofiness and swagger as Jake, the jock and perpetual club leader who catches Christina's eye. Derrick D. Truby, Jr. is a powerhouse, creating distinct and vivid portrayals of Mr. Reyes, Mr. Heere, and the scary Payless employee.

Most of the action in Be More Chill is conveyed through song and Marika Countouris' music direction keeps the music front and center. The intimate performance space prevents the band from playing on stage, but Countouris and the musicians seamlessly connect with the on-stage performances through video. Countouris, on keyboards, is joined by Brian Berdan (reeds and keyboards), Rick Peralta (guitar), Chip Carvell (guitar), Sam Carolla (percussion), Jonas Creason (bass), and Paul Weiss (trumpet and theremin). Jordana Abrenica's sound design capably ensures proper balance and clarity in a show that requires it.

Review: Brilliant BE MORE CHILL at Monumental Theatre Company
Christian Montgomery and Ben Ribler

The production boasts an all-female design team. Simone Schneeberg's scenic design uses flexible, modular pieces to transform the intimate black box theater over and over again. Helen Garcia-Alton's lighting design added futuristic verve to more typical high school halls, mall food courts, and teen hangouts. From Halloween costumes, to sequined fantasy scenes, to the SQUIP's futuristic flash, to more typical high school garb, Kristen P Ahern's costumes were fun and varied. It's quite likely that any musical number staged amid lockers and club posters would be reminiscent of High School Musical, but with the intimate space and elevated score, Patricia "Pep" Targete's choreography would have benefitted from more subtlety and sophistication.

Be More Chill only runs a few short weeks - don't miss it. The company has scheduled several special performances including a late night on July 19, a "chill and grill" picnic on July 21, and two industry nights. Check the company's website for details.

Monumental Theatre Company earned the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theater Company at the 2018 Helen Hayes Awards. It is easy to see why they were recognized for their excellence and professionalism. With this production they continue to deliver.

Be More Chill is a production with a lot of heart, humor, and flair. Its bright and talented cast delivers a polished, memorable, and thoroughly enjoyable show.

Review: Brilliant BE MORE CHILL at Monumental Theatre Company
Jyline Carranza and cast

Runtime: 2 hours including a 15-minute intermission

Be More Chill, music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, book by Joe Tracz, is produced by Monumental Theatre Company and performed at Ainslie Arts Center, 3900 West Braddock Road, Alexandria, Virginia 22304. The production runs through July 29. For the full performance schedule, to purchase tickets, or to find more information, please visit the Monumental Theatre Company website here.

Photo credit: RJ Pavel


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