By Lynn Venhaus
Every generation has a musical that captures the zeitgeist of the moment, that speaks to them in a special way. My generation of Baby Boomers had “Hair,” Gen X had “Rent,” Millennials had “Spring Awakening” and now Generation Z has the current cultural sensation “Be More Chill.” It’s fierce, fun and frisky.
This is not just another teen misfit story, although it taps into familiar themes, bearing some resemblance to “Mean Girls,” Dear Evan Hansen” and “Heathers.”
With more dimensions than stock characters, the kids work through messy life things – and as an adult, you just want to tell them “It gets better,” but then we’d have no story conflicts, would we? It’s set in suburban New Jersey and the time is now.
Is it ever. You’ll identify right away, as the dialogue is
a contemporary bulls-eye.
Besides being incredibly clever, another aspect that sets this realistic cautionary tale apart is its sci-fi framework. To understand just what a big-bang this musical clearly is, look at how it has tapped into a youthful energy that’s contagious, no matter what demographic.
Giving this show both a relevancy and a relatability, New Line Theatre is presenting the original regional version, which premiered in Red Bank, New Jersey in 2015, with music and lyrics by the Tony-nominated Joe Iconis and book by Joe Tracz, which is adapted from Ned Vizzini’s 2004 novel. An off-Broadway smash hit in 2018, “Be More Chill” moved to Broadway in February with an expanded version that is more ‘bigger is better.’
New Line keeps it focused with a tidy production, marked by co-directors Mike Dowdy-Windsor’s and Scott Miller’s high-spirited and insightful interpretation. This is arguably a defining moment for this fearless theater troupe, and not only because they obtained the rights before its Broadway run, but also because it’s a major leap forward as the company ends its 28th season.
The well-cast ensemble, playing 11 characters, sparkles. Each one has taken this show to heart with so much enthusiasm that it carries over to the audience, which included many young fans expressing their delight at every opportunity on opening night. Their joyous embrace of a show that defines how they feel, look and act is refreshing. The powerful connection between actors and theatergoers is electric and palpable. The performers feel every word and the audience responds in kind.
In one of the more memorable NLT debuts, Jayde Mitchell genuinely captured the teenage angst of nerdy Jeremy, who goes from zero to hero after a square little pill “from Japan” takes root in his brain, and this supercomputer communicates with a Squip (Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor). The Squip will guide his moves to become more popular at school. Mitchell announces himself as one to watch with his opening number, “More Than Survive,” and then transforms convincingly throughout, leading this finely tuned ensemble.
The mysterious Squip, played with potent authority by Dominic Dowdy-Windsor, is stunningly dressed in a dapper black crocodile coat made by costume designer Sarah Porter. He is the catalyst for action good, bad and ugly. If he looks like Laurence Fishburne in “The Matrix,” it’s intentional.
Dowdy-Windsor, always a strong singer, manages the beats of the darker role, as he is usually cast in heroic or romantic leads, a la “Yeast Nation” and “Zorba the Greek.” He’s terrific leading “Be More Chill” and revealing more of his intentions in “The Pitiful Children.”
As we know from every John Hughes movie in the 1980s, being a “Cool Kid” has its price, and losing/not valuing true-blue friends is one of the harshest costs. Jeremy’s bestie, Michael Mell, must be sacrificed in his all-consuming make-over quest to fit in and be liked – and not be invisible..
As Michael, dynamo Kevin Corpuz shines in a major supporting role, giving his all – it’s a heartfelt performance, easily tugging at the emotions in not only his delivery, but in his solo number, ‘Michael in the Bathroom.”
Irrepressible Evan Fornachon plays Rich, a jerky Big Man on Campus who likes to bully both Jeremy and Michael, displaying a menace that makes his ‘a-ha’ moment all the better.
Jeremy’s Dad is played with marvelously droll delivery by Zak Farmer, depressed over his recent divorce, who wanders around in a robe, mortifying his son, who would like to have him put on some pants. How can you not love a composer who gives you “The Pants Song”?
Farmer also doubles as Mr. Reyes, the cynical and animated drama teacher. He is very funny, both in appearance with an interesting platinum wig and in line delivery.
Another standout is Grace Langford playing ditzy Christine, who had been the object of Jeremy’s affection before the hotter, sluttier girls made a beeline for him once he had cool street cred. Her off-the-charts exuberance over acting in school plays is a ‘been there, done that’ bright spot, especially “I Love Play Rehearsal” and her candid “A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into.”
Gossip girl Jenna is all attitude in the hands of Isabel Garcia, who plays snarky, sassy and snotty with a duplicitous beaming smile. Laura Renfro, as shallow Chloe, and Melissa Felps, as vapid Brooke, are mercurial marvels here, powering through their characters’ hormones, secrets and lies with glee, quickly flipping moods. Ian McCreary also displays the viper girls’ distasteful qualities as their shameless male counterpart Jake.
The meticulous attention to detail is evident in every creative aspect, which are all in sync to create “a moment,” providing theater patrons with an entirely memorable experience.
The simplicity of the music, with its repetitive lyrics and catchy hooks, is deceptive, for music director Nicolas Valdez and his ace band – Assistant music director Marc Vincent as conductor/keyboard, Jake Heberlie on guitar, Joseph Henricks on reeds and keyboard, Clancy Newell on percussion and Jake Stergos on bass are extremely tight in pacing and master the score’s intricacies.
Choreographers Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack gave both a playful bounce and a vitality to the group musical numbers.
Combined with the ensemble’s exquisite harmonies, the peppy group numbers “Be More Chill,” “Upgrade” and “Voices in My Head” get stuck, well, in your head. And yes, “The Smartphone Hour” is literal, funny and nails the cellphone phenomenon.
Scenic designer Rob Lippert’s set is a clever mix of effective futuristic symbols and as always, his set is supremely functional. Everything has a purpose for being there. Propmaster Kimi Short did a dandy job assembling pieces that suit the décor and lifestyles.
Lippert, also the lighting designer, has excelled in creating precarious teen moods and a fantasy futuristic element with his illuminating plan. Ryan Day’s sound work is seamless.
In her wheelhouse, Porter has populated the oh-so-fun and cringe-worthy Halloween Party with a variety of spot-on costumes, showcasing both personality and pop culture references. Her work throughout is accurate – and cheeky. She gets the ‘90s love.
“Be More Chill” is fresh and funny, and not in a jaded ‘we’re so clever and smart’ way, but with real heart, and that may be the most important aspect – the emphasis on real.
The musical, in lyrics and book, speaks to us in a captivating way that transcends labels and genres. It targets our humanity. To make people feel less alone in this world is a remarkable thing.
(There is a wall of Post-It Notes at The Marcelle indicating what people imagine as their Squip. I didn’t take marker to paper opening night, but I’ve thought about it since, and mine would be Oprah. What’s yours?)
The New Line Theatre is presenting “Be More Chill” through June 22 but is sold out for its complete run. For more information about New Line, visit www.NewLineTheatre.com
Photos by Jill Ritter Lindberg