Book: Joe Tracz
Music and Lyrics: Joe Iconis
Writer: Ned Vizzini
Director: Stephen Brackett
There’s two key things at play here in this version of Be More Chill. The first is the energy and momentum created by a young cast when performing ideas written first by an author who was at the very foundation of today’s YA literature push. This is material for their generation – it’s high school, it’s loneliness, it’s pressure, it’s parties and it’s play rehearsal. Or, maybe, they’re just good actors in a really well produced musical – both plausible.
The second is the interesting social dynamics it presents and its direct, searing look at today’s core social problems even though the book the musical is based on was written in 2004 – the first performance being 2015. It imagines the outcome of a high-school misfit, Jeremy Heere, who takes a pill containing a tiny supercomputer called Squip, in order to boost his social skills and, of course, get the girl. There’s little novelty in the idea of a quick fix pill, but the treatment from this story does have charisma enough to make it feel fairly fresh and bright.
This brightness takes the form of a very peppy and energetic performance. It’s dramatic and intense and, in fact, creates a loud and impactful production that is used to drive some irritating content in the first half. Before the break, the characters and their interactions are dislikable – most feel selfish and a little flat. They’re all show and no grace initially (apart from the weird theatre kid Christine Canigula and Jeremy’s gentle best friend Michael). However, everything starts to come together after the interval and the richness and complexity of the music is finally matched by the storytelling.
After the interval, we’re treated to a different show altogether. We’re given more of the deep thinking about the structure of our world and how it heaps pressures on the youth. It warns of the dangers of technology – the cause of and potential solution to a raft of issues. It goes well, almost perfectly, but when The Squip (played with menace and slick authority by Stewart Clarke) overplays it and just says that he intends to make a social network – the spell is somewhat broken.
Supporting that deeper message of acceptance for who you are in an age where diversity and individuality both matter and is under threat is a solid cast. As Jeremy, Scott Folan does a lot of the heavy lifting and presents an engaging focal point. Blake Patrick Anderson is fantastic as Michael, delivering the show’s most memorable and interesting song Michael in the Bathroom as a ballad that stands out among the more flashy (though technically excellent) song and dance numbers.
Costumes by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, scene design by Beowulf Boritt and sound design by Ryan Rumery wrap the show in a highly enjoyable (and nostalgic) early 2000s feeling. It all comes together well, and while the idea feels a little simplistic and obvious they’re presented with such bounce and verve it’s impossible not to leave without feeling a little wiser.
One interesting part to this story about the dangers of relying too much on tech is in the programme and theatre itself. All around are neat little innovations to improve interaction like encouragement to take pictures of the stage and share on social, as well as ways to interact more with the case and authors through QR codes. Enjoyable and useful extra insight, but it’s slightly uncomfortable being encouraged to use phones and social networks alongside a powerful musical warning of the dangers of these very things.
Runs until 3 May 2020