BWW Review: BE MORE CHILL, The Other Palace
It's safe to say that Be More Chill's journey to the major stages has been decidedly unconventional. After its New Jersey commission in 2015 and the subsequent limited run and cast recording release, fans started to spread the word thanks to the power of the internet.
A phenomenon somewhat unprecedented in the theatre business, it's the fandom alone who managed to convince the producers to bring it back in 2018 after thousands of streams had accumulated, fanfiction had been written, YouTube fan videos about the characters had been created, and the material had become a bit of an online sensation. Following an initial run Off-Broadway, a transfer to the Great White Way was announced.
Some considerable award nominations and wins after, Joe Iconis (music and lyrics) and Joe Tracz's (book) musical based on Ned Vizzini's eponymous novel has landed in London at The Other Palace, beating all odds. The show's core is a sci-fi-infused high-school romance and coming-of-age story with a twist. It's fun, deep, curious, and odd - but somehow it works. It's a show for the weird kids, the theatre kids, and the invisible kids.
Jeremy and Michael are the most unpopular pupils in their school. When the former gets the chance to implant a chip in his brain that will finally make him cool and get the girl of his dreams, he jumps at it. But his SQUIP - the acronym for "super quantum unit Intel processor" - has darker intentions, and Jeremy will have to challenge his own ambitions and fears to be brave and do the right thing. The London production of the latest of cult musicals is an immediate success on British territory too.
Scott Folan is the heroic underdog who gets lost along the way. He explores the depths of Jeremy very well, moving from utterly heartbreaking to being the unintentional jock who accidentally nearly allows an AI to take over the world easily and seamlessly. His best friend Michael is portrayed by Blake Patrick Anderson who, subtle and hilarious, steals the show - along with everyone's hearts - with every exchange. His rendition of "Michael in the Bathroom" is particularly rich and brings the performance to a halt with emotion.
The company includes two former Six queens: Millie O'Connell and Renée Lamb. As Chloe and Jenna respectively, they are the sometime bullies of the central character and add a good dose of sass and spice to the already brilliant cast - which truly sees an abundance of riches when it comes to talent. Joining them is Eloise Davies, who completes the Mean Girls-style trio haunting the protagonist, James Hameed as the school's bad boy with more than one secret, and Miles Paloma as the athlete-turned-thespian who threatens the main love story.
Miracle Chance is Jeremy's beloved Christine; over the top and dramatic, she is a joyful presence on the stage. Finally, Stewart Clarke is the SQUIP. Menacing and towering over the teenagers, he follows Jeremy around with intimidating demeanour as he gradually becomes a theatrical supervillain. They work like gears in a machine, or rather, chips in a computer. Chase Brock's choreography is energetic and fresh and gives a quick and captivating pace to the story framed by Beowulf Boritt's hyper-modern, sleek, digitally inclined, yet invigoratingly simple set design.
Iconis's score is a blend of pop and rock with electronic infusions. It's easy to see why the musical quickly turned into a beloved piece of theatre: catchy tunes and relatable lyrics are matched to extravagant characters who are garish and loud in all the right places, but know how to connect with their audience on an empathetic level. They want nothing more than to be accepted and validated.
They're lonely and bullied, suffocating under a net of gossip and rumours - perpetrators and abused alike. They crumble under peer pressure and ultimately are classic teenagers who are victims of their own school hierarchy. Jeremy's journey is universal, as he finds the true meaning of friendship via wading through crushes and evil masterminds. Iconis and Tracz have written a show for the digital era and it's impossible to be chill about Be More Chill.
Image credit: Matthew Crockett