BE MORE CHILL – ⭐️⭐️⭐️ – a deceptively well crafted crowd-pleaser

Stewart Clarke as The Squip and company in Be More Chill, photograph by Matt Crockett for Dewynters

BE MORE CHILL

Music and lyrics by Joe Iconis

Book by Joe Tracz

Based on the novel by Ned Vizzini

Directed by Stephen Brackett

Shaftesbury Theatre – until 5 September

https://www.bemorechillmusical.com/?gclid=CjwKCAjw_o-HBhAsEiwANqYhp34Cj6fcTNItFoRGd86XPch4DCOIG3YT57GP3jxSuKdbWQFyzrAnKBoC440QAvD_BwE

Young Adult fiction is a beloved and lucrative literary genre. If there were an acknowledged theatrical equivalent – and if such a thing existed, it would have to include such crowd pleasers as Heathers, Loserville, Bare: A Rock Opera even possibly Six– then surely Be More Chill would be It’s apotheosis. Inspired by the late Ned Vizzini’s cleverly wrought maelstrom of teen angst and sci-fi, this cultish musical was something of a phenomenon during it’s initial off-Broadway runs where tickets were rarer than hens teeth, but then saw it’s reputation stall somewhat when it transferred unsuccessfully to the main stem, possibly as a result of the core late teen audience being unwilling, or unable, to pay Broadway prices.

The London production is a replica of the NYC original and had it’s season at The Other Palace cut short by the pandemic. Now it’s back for a summer run at the Shaftesbury where it fits snugly, striking exactly the right balance between anarchy and sincerity. More staid audience members may initially find themselves a bit bewildered by the neon-etched, hyper-kinetic blast of colour and snark that characterises this quirky slice of Americana, but look closer and Be More Chill is a surprisingly well made musical.

Joe Iconis’s tuneful, eclectic score, witty and bombastic, kicks off with a genuinely accomplished opening number, introducing hero, teen misfit Jeremy (played with charm but commendable lack of cuteness by Scott Folan), his equally off-beat best mate (Blake Patrick Anderson, delightfully nerdy), his widowed Dad, in too much despair to ever get fully dressed (lovely work by Christopher Fry), plus the whole milieu of small town American High School, and the various eccentrics who inhabit it. The music may be pop, but the storytelling is classic Broadway musical comedy. Setting the tone so vividly makes it easier to swallow the tall tale that follows in Joe Tracz’s peppy book: Jeremy discovers a tiny pill-sized computer called the Squip that, when ingested, makes it’s owner invincible. However, like Little Shop of Horror’s Audrey Two but without the viridity and indeed the eating of people, the Squip turns out to be hell bent on world domination.

Along the way, Iconis’s songs throw up some real gems, including a rollicking anthem ‘The Pitiful Children’ for the Squip reminiscent of the sinister joy of Glam Rock, a roof raising cellphone gossip number that is a modern homage to Bye Bye Birdie’s classic ‘Telephone Hour’ number, and a bona fide showstopper in ‘Michael In The Bathroom’, a glorious lament for socially anxious teens everywhere, delivered flawlessly by Anderson. Perhaps most surprising is the lyrical, haunting, almost Country & Western inflected finale ‘Voices In My Head’ which acquires authentic poignancy when one realises it is partly inspired by the fate of the original novel’s author Joe Vizzini, who took his own life in 2013.

The casting is terrific: Stewart Clarke makes a magnificent Squip, both magnetic and chilling, with a stunning voice and an irresistible malevolent energy, never more so than when leading the company in Chase Brock’s dynamic, angular choreography, the detached smirk permanently etched across his handsome face. Melody Chance hilariously imbues school drama queen Christine with an almost alarming intensity tempered with real sweetness and Millie O’Connell is deliciously funny as a top Mean Girl type. As her sidekicks, Renée Lamb and Eloise Davies even impressively find some vulnerability and depth under all the belting and attitude.

Performed entirely in Beowulf Borritt’s giant computer set, Stephen Brackett’s production is deceptively clever: for all the preposterousness and chaos, it is swift and clear, making intelligent use of Alex Basco Koch’s exhilarating old-school computerised images and Bobby Frederick Tilley’s agreeably outlandish costumes, while Brock’s dances feel fresh and original. Audibility can sometimes be an issue in rock and pop musicals but here Ryan Rumery’s sound design hits the theatrical sweet spot whereby the music is sufficiently loud as to to be truly rousing, but we catch every lyric.

Despite being very enjoyable, the frequently derivative script isn’t really top drawer – at it’s funniest it’s a bit like watching Avenue Q without the puppets – but the treatment of it most certainly is. Plus the second act, which contains the lions share of good songs, is rather stronger than the first, perhaps because this is where the show deviates most significantly from it’s source material and allows the musical to become it’s own beast. Ultimately though, it feels like a summer hit.

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