Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Be More Chill
New Line Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green


Jayde Mitchell and
Dominic Dowdy-Windsor

Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
Going purely by the opening night crowd at the Marcelle Theatre, Be More Chill is fantastic if you're in your 20s. The musical, based on the novel by Ned Vizzini, conjures an overwhelming high school atmosphere of self-doubt, and hot and cold running teenaged judgments. All that psychic energy fuels the need for a magic "sophistication pill" in the libretto by Joe Tracz, with music and lyrics by Joe Iconis. But if you're older, the distant patchwork of memories evoked by this local premiere (concurrent with a big Broadway production in New York) may confound, like a mirage.

The Tony Awards aren't until June 9, but the show is nominated in the category of Best Original Score for its complex and enjoyable tunes. Here, under the co-direction of Michael Dowdy-Windsor and company founder Scott Miller, the cast is bright and engaged (we unofficially credit Mr. Dowdy-Windsor for this sort of thing) and melancholy and anguished (we usually credit Mr. Miller for this) but perfectly melodic, under the musical direction of Nicolas Valdez.

The musical started in regional theater in 2015, moved to Off-Broadway in 2018, and Broadway this year, becoming officially grafted into the lineage of shows about pixilated adolescents. The 1960 Bye Bye Birdie song "The Telephone Hour" is updated here as "The Smartphone Hour" in act two. And much of the show evokes a long list of sock-hop yarns that were set between world wars, both major and minor, during a time when kids could finally be kids again. But there's also a persistently odd, dark echo throughout, especially in "The Squip Song," evoking the pounding bridge of the 1959 song popularized by Paul Revere and the Raiders, "Indian Reservation." "The Squip Song" is about that magic pill, a nano-computer you swallow to "be more chill" (after the fashion of The Nutty Professor, 1963). And the ghost of 1960s rocker Paul Revere Dick hovers again at this show's Halloween party, till a more modern joke is unveiled for a character in a velvet suit and ruffled shirt. And of course "Squip" (both the pill and the character it generates in your mind, played nicely by Dominic Dowdy-Windsor) reminds some of us of "Vip," the mysterious product from the 1961 movie Lover Come Back.

So Be More Chill is a compelling excoriation if you're young, and a sort of vintage/antique shop of the mind if you're old, as we all struggle to understand this brave new world. The main teenage characters also have a fascination with the 1990s (which will appeal to anyone aged in-between), along with a powerful thirst for Pepsi-Cola products. And that, little children, is called good marketing.

But it's all done beautifully, in spite of a couple of slow spots near the end of each act. Jayde Mitchell is terrifically nuanced as Jeremy, the teenage spaz who's tired of feeling like a loser, and Kevin Corpuz is outstanding as his best friend, with a long and very powerful soliloquy, "Michael in the Bathroom," during a Halloween costume party. Grace Langford is wonderfully enthusiastic as Jeremy's possible/likely girlfriend Christine, and Laura Renfro is slyly wicked as Chloe, the bad girl.

There's a delightful mock cameo by Zachary Allen Farmer who plays three parts here, including Jeremy's father and a soulless pill-pusher, as well as (most memorably for critics) a high school drama teacher who bears a striking resemblance to director/producer Miller. It restores our faith in self-mockery to see Mr. Farmer in a blond wig and glasses, directing a school version of A Midsummer Night's Dream with zombies, especially after the fantastic Zombies of Penzance adapted by Mr. Miller himself earlier this season.

Be More Chill is built around the classic conflict of individualism and the pressure to conform to a group identity, which seemed to delight the younger members of the audience opening night. And the struggle between those two forces becomes unexpectedly wrenching and dark near the end—though the show also has a sort of vampire-hunters' happy ending, after all.

Be More Chill, through June 22, 2019, at New Line Theatre, Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Dr., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.newlinetheatre.com.

The Cast:
Jeremy: Jayde Mitchell
Michael: Kevin Corpuz
The Squip: Dominic Dowdy-Windsor
Christine: Grace Langford
Jeremy's Dad et al: Zachary Allen Farmer
Rich: Evan Fornachon
Jenna: Isabel Cecilia Garcia
Brooke: Melissa Felps
Jake: Ian McCreary
Chloe: Laura Renfro

The New Line Band:
Conductor/Keyboard: Marc Vincent
Guitar: Jake Heberlie
Reeds/Keyboard: Joseph Hendricks
Percussion: Clancy Newell
Bass: Jake Stergos

The Artistic Staff:
Directors: Mike Dowdy-Windsor, Scott Miller
Music Director: Nicolas Valdez
Assistant Music Director: Marc Vincent
Choreographers: Michelle Sauer, Sara Rae Womack
Stage Manager: Erin Goodenough
Scenic & Lighting Designer: Rob Lippert
Costume Design: Sarah Porter
Sound Designer: Ryan Day
Props Master: Kimi Short
Volunteer Coordinator: Alison Helmer
Graphic Designer: Matt Reedy


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