Broadway musicals’ 11 o’clock numbers are often defiant, triumphant character studies or orchestra-swelling realizations of love — think “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy or “She Used to Be Mine” from Waitress. Meanwhile, the one in Be More Chill happens…when a lonely high school stoner is desperately hiding in the bathroom at a house party.
And let’s be clear —Christian Montgomery turns that song into a real tour de force in Monumental Theater Company’s production of Be More Chill. During the show’s catchiest and quirkiest song despite its silly setting, (which received an uncredited parody during this past year’s Tony awards), Montgomery gets plenty of laughs, but also masterfully communicates the real sense of loss he’s experienced now that his best friend Jeremy has left him behind for more popular pastures.
The age-old desire to be more cool (or in this case, “chill”) is what drives the drama in the show. Based on a young adult novel by Ned Vizzini, Be More Chill has a science fiction bent to its zany plot, which features insecure teenagers ingesting a supercomputer in pill form (“It’s from Japan,” those in-the-know tell us reverently in one of the show’s best running gags) in the hopes of modifying their behavior to reach a higher status in the high school food chain. Outsider Jeremy (Ben Ribler) is the latest to get his hands onto one of these SQUIPs — and naturally, there are consequences for ingesting this little shortcut to social standing.
Young adult musicals are having kind of a moment in musical theater, whether it be the emotive sensation Dear Evan Hansen or the nostalgically catty Mean Girls (when was the last time two jokes about “sexy” animal Halloween costumes were playing out on Broadway stages at the same time?). Be More Chill experienced an unlikely rise to that stage, driven in part by masses of young fans entranced by its catchy, viral-sensation soundtrack. But I didn’t totally connect with Be More Chill when I saw it at the Lyceum Theatre in New York several months ago (I wasn’t alone, as the show debuted to mixed reviews and was practically shut out of the Tony awards).
Be More Chill from Monumental Theatre Company closes July 29, 2019.
Details and tickets
But something has shifted in the time since then, and a lot has to do with seeing a smaller, stripped-down production of a show that didn’t feel quite at home on the Broadway stage.
Monumental’s production is less buoyed by multimedia production values, but feels more youthful, more intimate, more genuine. Part of its success can also be traced back to Ribler, who instead of embodying an exaggerated cartoon version of a “geek”, feels like a normal, struggling kid desperate for a break. The sweet friendship between him and Montgomery’s Michael is at the core of Be More Chill’s appeal (and gets the chance to shine during the athletically choreographed “Two Player Game”). The pair is surrounded by other engaging classmates, whether it be empowered, fizzy drama kid Christine (Jyline Carranza, grounding a character who can lean a little Manic Pixie Dream Girl), or popular gossips Brooke and Chloe (Geocel Batista and Molly Rumberger, who have wonderful comic chemistry together).
Monumental has assembled an all-woman production team (here’s hoping this recent trend eventually doesn’t require a press release), and the decision reveals itself in a couple of the show’s creative choices. On Broadway, the SQUIP was embodied by a young man doing an extended Keanu Reeves impression (a funny gag that eventually wore a little thin): here, a woman’s given the job, and the back-and-forth between Ribler and vocal powerhouse Caroline Dubberly has a fun energy to it. Monumental’s production also nixes Jeremy’s act-closing anthem “Loser Geek Whatever,” a late addition to the Broadway version for a character not exactly lacking in stage time, and the show feels tighter for it.
Be More Chill is ostensibly set in today’s world, though with a hefty thread of 90s nostalgia running through it (references to everything from Mountain Dew Red to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” abound). Given the show’s love for such Easter eggs and occasionally cringe-worthy reliance on slang (prime lyrical example: ”high school is whack, but we have each others’ back”), it’s hard to know what kind of staying power the show will have. But in the meantime, I’m here to cheer on its video game-obsessed best friends, who take on everything from digital zombies to menacing artificial intelligence without leaving each other’s side in the end.
Be More Chill. Music and Lyrics by Joe Iconis. Book by Joe Tracz. With Ben Ribler, Christian Montgomery, Jyline Carranza, Caroline Dubberly, Nigel Rowe, Jonathan Helwig, Allison Bradbury, Geocel Batista, Molly Rumberger, and Derrick Truby. Directed by Izzy Smelkinson. Music Director: Marika Countouris. Associate Director: Megan Bunn. Choreographer: Patricia “Pep” Targete. Lighting Design: Helen Garcia-Alton. Custome Design: Kristen P Ahern. Scenic Design: Simone Schneeberg. Stage Manager: Aria Velz. Sound Design: Jordana Abrenica, Madeline Clamp. Fight Choreographer: Bess Kaye. Technical Director: Simone Schneeberg. Produced by Monumental Theatre Company . Review by Missy Frederick.