Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Be More Chill, with a book by Joe Tracz based on the young-adult novel by Ned Vizzini, and music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, opened on Broadway just last month, moving from a sold-out off-Broadway run that was the result of the original cast recording of its 2015 premiere at Two River Theater in New Jersey going viral. A host of fans identified with Jeremy and his high school struggles, and wanted the show to be reborn on a larger stage. Not satisfied with being on the Great White Way, the creators of Be More Chill have made the unusual decision to allow regional theater productions to flourish, even as the show works to build up its brand and hopefully be in the running for the upcoming Tony Awards.
The intrepid Minneapolis Musical Theatre stepped forward, and their production of Be More Chill is enjoying a four-week run at Illusion Theater. The show is terrific, with an engaging score, sold performances (including a "star of the future" turn by Maxwell Emmett Ward as Jeremy), modest production values that fit the material like a glove, and a book that captures the heartache and hopefulness of those teen yearseven for a fellow like me, fifty years past my high school days. That said, the audience at the performance I attended was mainly a lot youngerand they seemed to be loving everything about the show. I would definitely not pitch it as only for under-30s; it is a well-crafted musical comedy with abundant humor and heart, for the young and for those who have been young.
If the fears and desires of teenage boys have been pretty consistent, Jeremy's means of changing his life was definitely inconceivable in my youth. After a display of the agonies he faces in his daily lifehis internet porn not loading up fast enough for him to masturbate before heading off to school; his sad sack father who has floundered, working from home and wearing only his underwear since Jeremy's mother left them; bully boys and gossip girls who torment him at school; and his long time crush, Christine, taking up with tall, good-looking, popular Jake, making his odds with Christine close to zilchone of those bullies, Rich, takes pity on Jeremy and reveals the secret to his own success: the Squip. It's a miniaturized computer smaller enough to swallow in pill form (Squip standing for "super quantum unit intel processor") which takes over the swallower's mind, telling him or her every move to make, every word to say, in order to be coolscratch that, to be chill.
Jeremey's forever best friend Michael is skeptical. Like Jeremy, he is tagged as a loser at school, but unlike Jeremy, manages to be okay with that. He and Jeremy submerge themselves in video games, extolling their close friendship in the wonderful song "Two-Player Game," in which Michael tells Jeremy not to worry, cause "Guys like us are cool in college." Still, Jeremy goes for the Squip, unwilling to wait until college to be cool. His Squip is seen and heard only by Jeremy (and the audience), resembles Keanu Reeves in The Matrix and swoops in to manage every aspect of Jeremy's life. Things change, altering his friendship with Michael, his chances with Christine, his sudden status among the gossip girls, and his role in the school play. In the end, Jeremy learns a valuable lesson (as if you wouldn't see that coming). I won't spoil the fun of learning how it all turns out, but will say that the outcome left me floating on a cloud of sweet nostalgia for the possibilities (albeit, unrealized) of high school happiness.
Be More Chill opens with a great set-the-stage number, "More Than Survive," in which Jeremy lays out his litany of woes, presented with total conviction by Ward. Ward goes on throughout the show to win everyone's heart, even when Jeremy becomes a bit of a snot. Other gems in the score include Christine's treatise on theater love ("I Love Play Rehearsal"), performed with nerdy perfection by Caitlin Featherstone; "The Squip Song," led with gusto by Nick Manthe as Rich; a brilliant update of Bye Bye Birdie's "The Telephone Hour" titled "The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire)"; "The Pants Song," the moment of redemption for Jeremy's dad, played with panache by Christian Unser; and best of the lot, the heartbreaking "Michael in the Bathroom," with Jim Belden superb as Michael, barricaded in a bathroom at a party to which he wasn't invited, unable to face the taunts of his popular classmates. Iconis' score ties the show together with an uplifting finale, "Voices in My Head."
Also in the cast: Mike Tober as the Squip, with a slinky physicality and a menacing demeanor; Alexis Larson and Jordyn KarlyAna Catanach, both perfect as the "hottest" girl in school and her sidekick, turning their sexy charms on post-Squip Jeremy; Matthew Hall as Jake, a player who is used to having what, and who, he wants; and Maggie Mae Sulentic as Jenna Rolan, the biggest gossip among the girls, who earnestly wonders "I make it my business to know what's going on with everyone else. Why doesn't anybody want to know what's going on with me?"
The entire ten-member cast work seamlessly as an ensemble, all singing well and playing their parts with conviction, with director Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha maintaining a quick pace with fluid transitions and a consistent attitude. Abbi Fern's lively choreography fills the stage with energy, but she has her actors dance not as polished dancers but as real kids letting loose. The score is well played by a rock-solid six-piece band led by music director Anna Murphy. The music is loud (it's a rock score, reflecting the lives of high school age kidswe want it loud), but it is totally within reasonable limits, and does not overpower the always clever, sometimes touching lyrics.
Likewise, the elements of the modest physical productionsets, lights, costumes and soundwork together to create a vibrant and fully functional visual and aural environment without being so eye-popping as to distract from the very human, very everyday experience that is being played out before us. One very nice touch that caught my eye, the bedspread in Jeremy's bedroomJeremy who wants so desperately to live his dweeby childhood behindis festooned with images of Batman. And the Squip's costume suitably has electrified trim around his jacket and the soles of his shoes, confirming that he is, after all, a technoid and not a human.
Minneapolis Musical Theatre is exactly the right company among our pantheon of theater companies to stage Be More Chill. Their down-to-basic production values, emphasis on performances, and ability to remain earnest while winking broadly at the material are perfectly suited to the show's open-handed adolescent angst and the redemptive joy of finding your way out of a matrix. Be More Chill may or may not prove to be a big hit on Broadwayit is too soon to tellbut in the Twin Cities, it is a winning addition to our season. It may not make you "more chill" but it's is bound to leave you with a backpack full of joy.
Minneapolis Musical Theatre's Be More Chill, through April 28, 2019, at the Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $29.00 - $35.00. For tickets and information, call 612-440-6681 or visit aboutmmt.org.
Book: Joe Tracz, based on the novel by Ned Vizzini; Music and Lyrics: Joe Iconis; Director: Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha; Choreographer: Abbi Fern; Music Director and Conductor: Anna Murphy; Set Design and Technical Director: Robin McIntyre; Costume Design: Mandy Parmeter; Lighting Design: Grace Barnstead; Sound Design: Abe Gabor; Prop Design: Joe Hendren; Fight Coordinator: Greg Parmeter; Stage Manager: Miranda Shunkwiler; Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Fairchild; Co-Producer: Mark Lyons.
Cast: Jim Belden (Michael Mell), Jordyn KarlyAna Catanach (Brooke), Caitlin Featherstone (Christine Canigula), Matthew Hall (Jake Dillinger), Alexis Larson (Chloe), Nick Manthe (Rich), Maggie Mae Sulentic (Jenna Rolan), Mike Tober (The Squip), Christian Unser (Jeremy's Dad/Mr. Reyes/scary stock boy), Maxwell Emmett Ward (Jeremy Heere).