Joe Iconis’ musical knows its early teen audience well and its soundtrack has been a phenomenal success. Based on the novel for young adults by Ned Vizzini, with the show’s book by Joe Tracz, its “loser” hero Jeremy takes a pill containing a computer that will make him popular. The free-will twist has thankfully struck a chord with its young demographic. My question is, can the show please a larger crowd as well as its intended cohort?
There are limitations to the high school musical genre. Be More Chill follows a formula and has the usual earnestness, with the extra irony of telling you how important it is to relax. And there’s an expected cheeky edge that isn’t as funny as it would like to be. Take the school play (the obligatory public event for the finale) of A Midsummer Night’s Dream… with zombies – it gets a laugh but, if you’re my age, you’ve probably seen that production for real.
Problems carry through to director Stephen Brackett’s production. The silliness in the scenario is embraced but is checked by the undoubted, essential, sincerity. Taking the teenagers’ problems seriously is important but sits uneasily with the camp nonsense. There is fun – credit to Stewart Clarke as ‘The Squip’, the nanotechnology performed larger than life – but you can’t escape a sense of trying too hard.
But there are no complications with the music – look at those download figures! Iconis’ lyrics are good and the songs entertaining. There’s plenty of variety and adventurous touches while electronica is kept under control. Every number is a big one (on stage, a little overwhelming) and the whole cast get good turns. From Millie O’Connell, in a relatively small role, showing strong comedy skills, to Blake Patrick Anderson’s show-stopping number Michael in the Bathroom: he gives that soundtrack a run for its money… music is better live!
The characters and performances are strong. The lead part of Jeremy is a true star role, studiously written as ‘relatable”, which Scott Folan gives his all to. Barely off the stage, Folan manages that balance between funny and sincere. And it’s impossible not to be won over by his love interest, the admirably independent Christine. She loves the theatre, so we love her, and the performance by Miracle Chance is suitably adorable.
There are many parallels to draw with another teen hit, Dear Evan Hansen – about a troubled teen in a crazy situation – that Iconis surely has mixed feelings about. Avoiding numbers for parents (there’s only half of one that Christopher Fry does well with) seems a sensible move. And taking itself slightly less seriously, with Brackett’s help, also helps. Be More Chill has no room for cynicism, and a light touch is when the show becomes truly winning. Relax and you’ll like it, whatever your age.
Until 5 September 2021