For musicals, the road to success is a long and often perilous one and while occasionally new plays open cold in the West End, their song-filled counterparts can take years to find an audience. Anyone who has seen the two series of Smash will know that concept to workshop to out of town tryouts and eventually to the big theatres is filled with all kinds of drama, politicking and disaster. But not for Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz’ musical Be More Chill which opens at The Other Palace in February.
At a First-Look Event held in the English Touring Company’s rehearsal rooms near Waterloo, producer Jerry Goehring told the assembled press corps a fairy tale about the influence of the digital age on this most intriguing of new musicals. Based on Ned Vizzini’s novel, in 2015 a small version ran for three weeks in New Jersey and everyone involved went on their way. By 2017 the soundtrack had been streamed 10 million times and suddenly an off-Broadway sell-out was followed by a hallowed transfer to America’s main thoroughfare where it ran for 6-months. With the songs now streamed over 350 million times, the show arrives in London for its debut run with a new British cast.
And the story is an incredibly pertinent one, as anxious High Schooler Jeremy takes a tablet that creates a super-computer inside his head that helps him to navigate the complexities of teenage life, first love and how to build his popularity while being ‘more chill.’ Giving the ‘Squip’ the imaginary form of Keanu Reeves – someone Jeremy looks up to – the implant has a mind of its own deciding to take over the world one ‘Pitiful Child’ at a time.
Rehearsal rooms are always far less glamorous than you might imagine and anyone who has been on the excellent backstage tours at the National Theatre will know that most of them look like an unremarkable, and often rather messy, school hall. But they are blank canvas onto which the cast and creative team can start to plot the physical, emotional and narrative shape of the text, and in only their second week of rehearsal Director Stephen Brackett’s vision is fast taking shape.
Performing three numbers, the extended opening song More Than Survive is a smart introduction to the protagonist and the parameters of his world. With no set and few props, lead Scott Folan gives the viewer a crash course on Jeremy that covers his high anxiety, social awkwardness and a hint of family trouble. Walking through his morning, Jeremy takes the bus to school, introduces the audience to his high school crush, meets his best friend, encounters bullies and signs-up for the school play. It’s a busy introduction to a show that should look even more arresting when fully designed at The Other Palace where Chase Brock’s intriguing choreography should fill the stage.
In presenting the second number, I Love Play Rehearsal sung by female lead Christine, Brackett explains that Be More Chill purposefully mixes the big all-cast production numbers with smaller, more intimate insights into individual character. Meeting the girl of his dreams at the first school play rehearsal, Jeremy essentially listens to her describe her excitement at being in the production, giving Miracle Chance, playing the role of Christine, her first opportunity to demonstrate her comedy skills in a song that suggests her determination as well as her vulnerability. It’s a nice touch to have Christine reading a biography of Julie Walters to underscore her serious acting credentials, but will that make it to the main stage?
Finally, the invited audience were taken ahead to Act Two where the Squip is now fully in control of Jeremy’s behaviour, introducing an entertaining megalomaniacal number in which the Squip plans to expand his span of control. Pitiful Children promises to be one of the most interesting sections of the show, dripping with malevolence as Stewart Clarke bringing fine voice to the role of the devil on Jeremy’s shoulder, using Brock’s geometric choreography that gives the secondary characters an automaton feel that should be quite a showstopper in full costume.
New musicals have come thick and fast in the last couple of years but Be More Chill with its strange blend of High School movies and Science Fiction could be one of the most rewarding. Geeks are all the rage of course with Teenage Dick, Dear Evan Hansen and the Other’s Palace’s hit Eugenius playing recently and while the road to theatrical success is long but Be More Chill is well on its way.
Be More Chill opens at The Other Palace on 12 February. Tickets and further information available on the website.