In this age of social media some theatre pieces are propelled to prominence by sheer word of mouth. Be More Chill is just such a show. More than 350 million people streamed the original cast recording, and the off-Broadway run sold out in record time, writes Christopher Walker.
A very contemporary musical exploration of adolescent angst, for those immersed in the world of snap chat and Instagram it is a joyous call to arms. My ears have just about recovered from the teenage girls screaming behind me.
There are dark origins to this fun-filled musical. Writer Ned Nizzani had extraordinary success with his first book Teen Angst? Naah when he himself was just 19. He followed this up with the novel Be More Chill at 23, arguing “the media present adolescence as hell on earth, chock-full of evil cliques…domineering parents and wrenching decisions…Nah. Adolescence is a time to sit back, (and) make some friends…”
This musical is true to that spirit – rather than the dark demons that haunted Nizzani’s brief life and eventually drove him to suicide.
The story concerns Jeremy, an unconfident, nerdy, 15-year-old who is a social misfit at school. He is played convincingly by Scott Folan (who is actually very good looking and no doubt socially successful – hence those screams).
Jeremy spends most of his time online, playing games with his best friend Michael (played by the talented Blake Patrick Anderson – more screams).
Any adult in the audience can quickly see that these two intelligent and sensitive individuals will end up well, and their duet predicting they will escape “high school hell” to be Cool at College is easily believable. But the boys have to get through school first.
They both struggle to relate to a set of attractive but incomprehensible girls: Christine Caligula (Miracle Chance), Brooke (Eloise Davies), and Chloe. Chloe is played by the very talented Millie O’Connell, who starred as Velcro in Soho Cinders and deserves a bigger role. Renee Lamb is the school gossip, Jenna, glued to her smart phone.
There is a magical and very funny number when the girls excitedly message each other after a Halloween party – The Smartphone Hour.
Faced with these unreadable sphynxes, and the kind of sporty airheads they prefer (played by Miles Paloma and James Hameed), the boys resort to a magic pill. This “Squip” turns out to be a Japanese mini-computer. Once ingested Jeremy gets an upgrade and is transformed. A new, super cool, inner voice teaches him how to Be More Chill.
This voice, the Squip, supposedly a Keanu Reeves (Matrix) lookalike, is played with sinister delight by Stewart Clarke (even if he is not quite Keanu). Thanks to him, the nerdy geek becomes the most popular boy in school.
Inevitably things get out of control, and the parallels with teenage drug experimentation are obvious. Thankfully parents need not be alarmed, however, as the audience is left in no doubt that artificial stimulants are not the way forward, and still have fun in the process.
The Other Palace is increasingly a showcase for New York’s finest musicals, and this is no exception. The writing is engaging and funny and, as we have come to expect from this jewel of a theatre in Lloyd Webber’s crown, the production values are very high.
Designer Beowulf Borat captures the right contemporary feel, especially with the innovative use of lighting (Tyler Micoleau) and projection (Alex Basco Koch).
There are a lot of good songs for this strong cast to get their teeth into. Teenagers and their parents are rightly flocking. Just take your ear plugs.
Be More Chill plays at The Other Palace and performances, as we went to press were set to resume on April 28.
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