It’s a coming-of-age story that’s been done to death. Geeky white male in nondescript American high school wants two things: the girl and to be accepted by the popular crowd. Not only overdone in film and TV, this common plotline has also been seen before in musical theatre (See Dear Evan Hansen, Eugenius!, and even Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark). Nevertheless, directed by Stephen Brackett, Be More Chill just about earns a spot amongst its teen movie inspired counterparts, relying on its catchy pop-rock score, dynamic cast and vibrant costumes.
Based on the 2004 novel by Ned Vizzini, the musical centres around social outcast Jeremy, who decides to literally take a chill pill. The ‘Squip’, amusingly described with nonsense jargon “quantum nano-technology CPU”, is a mysterious Japanese drug that promises to fix your life by teaching you how to be “cool”. As the Squip turns sinister, starting to take over Jeremy’s brain—and subsequently every character’s brain, in a Little Shop of Horrors style world domination mission—we learn that being more chill is more about understanding that no one is chill; Jeremy originally assumes that the popular kids have a picture-perfect life, but soon learns that they each have their own insecurities and anxieties, and are all just trying to fit in as much as he is.
The sheer energy of the actors is outstanding, which allows you to forgive their slightly dodgy American accents. Scott Folan’s awkward mannerisms perfectly embody the character of Jeremy, but the unexpected star of the show is Blake Patrick Anderson as Michael. His rendition of ‘Michael in the Bathroom’, sung with beautiful control and heaps of emotion, proves that friendship break-ups are just as heartbreaking as romantic ones, if not more. Another stand-out performance comes from Miracle Chance as drama nerd Christine, whose comic timing is spot on in ‘I Love Play Rehearsal’.
Lighting and visual media (courtesy of Tyler Micoleau and Alex Basco Koch) are used to great effect to create a retro video game feel, occasionally reminiscent of the film Scott Pilgrim vs the World. The real treat for the eyes, however, is the exceptional costume design. Each character has a distinct look, wearing an eclectic mish-mash of customised denim jackets, sparkly Doc Martens, and dresses layered over patterned leggings, looking like they’ve walked straight out of the late 2000s. With costume changes galore, designer Bobby Frederick Tilley II has a field day with wacky Halloween outfits, head-to-toe pill costumes, and the Squip’s aesthetic evolution from futuristic robot to intergalactic evil overlord.
Joe Iconis’ score combines witty lyrics and catchy tunes to perfectly capture the sound of teen angst. Despite a few too many songs that fail to progress the plot, it is clear why Be More Chill’s original cast recording has developed a cult following on Spotify (the theatre programme proudly states that the album has been streamed over 475 million times). After only a 5-week run in New Jersey in 2015, the show went dormant until a multitude of online fans brought it back on the radar in 2017, shooting it into the top ten for Billboard’s Cast Album charts. It is not a surprise, therefore, that the music is the backbone of the show.
Perhaps Be More Chill doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but it is gloriously silly, quirky and colourful. Besides, the pure excitement of being back in a live theatre, watching a cast having as much fun as possible with an upbeat musical that doesn’t take itself too seriously, is an unbeatable experience.
Be More Chill is at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London until 5 September 2021.
Words by Franky Lynn.
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