Review: Be More Chill (The Other Palace)
The cult sensation musical heads to London after runs both on Broadway and Off-Broadway
There is an ample supply of musicals that make the whole "High School sucks!" point – Mean Girls, Heathers, Dear Evan Hansen, Loserville and Carrie to name a few – and with zeal and gusto Be More Chill, the Off- and on-Broadway hit, lands in the heart of London to add to the list. A sleeper hit bolstered by an inordinate number of album streams on Spotify after its initial premiere in New Jersey in 2015, it has all the edgy, nerdy verve that draws teens and tweens like moths to a flame.
The plot, based on Ned Vizzini's novel of the same name, is slightly like that of Heathers or Hansen but with a microprocessor pill rather than carefully co-ordinated blazer choices or a deceased pupil. Doubling down on a sci-fi-lovers fantasy, it follows a young and needy high-schooler Jeremy, who, in a fit of despair, pops a pill from a shady shoe shop that promises to make himself popular. Like a Faustian bargain the pill, or "The Squip" as it's known, gives Jeremy what he wants but decimates his relationship with his nerdy best bud Michael as well as setting the world on a path of near total-annihilation.
It's always a fresh feeling seeing an unashamed sci-fi rollick blast its way onto the theatre scene. Joe Tracz's economic, pacy book is full of heart though perhaps patchy on the laughs, somehow managing to make a high school Halloween party more garish than joke-y. He does, however, have a whale of a time re-writing the words to A Midsummer Night's Dream, adding in a few zombie-related embellishments. Most of the female characters don't really get a look-in amidst all the hardcore boyish angst, with gags about boners, bongs and boxer shorts reappearing throughout.
Stephen Brackett's production, transporting most of the Broadway creative team across to the UK, wears its B-movie credentials on Bobby Frederick Tilley's quirkily costumed sleeves. From the neon glow of Beowulf Boritt's set to the jerky, angular hand gestures that reappear in Chase Brock's choreography or the synth-y orchestrations of Charlie Rosen, Brackett has set phasers to stun and largely succeeded. This is most clearly demonstrated in Alex Basco Koch's stylized projections – making The Other Palace's intimate space feel twice as wide as it actually is.
Where Be More Chill does have the edge over other high school musicals are Joe Iconis' tunes – catchy and hummable, they ping along and never outstay their welcome, especially "Two Player Game", "More Than Survive" and the finale "Voices in My Head".
The cast does a sturdy job. Taking all the right cues from another sci-fi classic Little Shop of Horrors, Scott Folan's Jeremy is a soon-to-be Seymour – squeaky and squawky, slightly hunched as if actively trying to make himself smaller. It's the kind of excruciating central turn that Be More Chill demands and Folan fits the role like a slightly oversized tee. There are comical yet fleet turns from the rest of the cast who each get their own moments to shine – Renée Lamb's Jenna, Millie O'Connell's Chloe and Eloise Davies' Brooke in anarchic number "The Smartphone Hour" or Miracle Chance as Scott's quirky crush Christine in "I Love Play Rehearsal".
The real stand-out here is Blake Patrick Anderson's Michael – endearing, loyal and brimming with heart, he also gets the showstopping number in the form of "Michael in the Bathroom" just after act two kicks off. It'll be exciting to see where Anderson turns next.
It's not a musical that re-invents the wheel despite its imaginative twists and tuneful turns, and the sugar-laden weirdness of Be More Chill might be as odd for some as it is addictive for others. But there's more than enough to satisfy the musical completists, eager to witness the newest Broadway import.