When Be More Chill opened at The Other Palace in 2019, we suggested that, like its central character, the musical might be keen on an upgrade, with a transfer to a larger West End theatre almost assured by its growing fan base. Of course, that was before its record breaking run was tragically cut short by the pandemic. But as theatre reopens, so too does Be More Chill and at the West End’s Shaftesbury Theatre, albeit for a limited run.
The original London cast returns for this version of the Broadway hit, based on the novel by Ned Vizzini. The musical’s original outing in New Jersey was quickly followed by a cast recording, which received so many downloads, an off-Broadway and Broadway run soon followed. Joe Iconis’ intoxicating score has attracted a dedicated following, and seeing Be More Chill again, I’m reminded why.
This is a musical that speaks directly to a younger demographic. The well-developed characters are high school seniors, attempting to fit in, be noticed, and tentatively take the first steps to adulthood. Jeremy, and best friend Michael, are the outcasts who no one pays attention to, and while Michael accepts this, Jeremy desperately wants to climb the social ladder and find the courage to ask Christine to go out with him.
Jeremy discovers a S.Q.U.I.P. (Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor), a grey oblong pill – it’s from Japan – which delivers a supercomputer directly in to the brain, creating a kind of internal spiritual guide who helps you to achieve whatever you want.
Unsurprisingly, this has consequences for Jeremy who no longer finds himself in a two player game, and has to make difficult choices between the life he’s always known, and the life he’s always wanted.
Yes, it’s by no means a conventional musical story arc, but as we emerge from this prolonged period of isolation, perhaps it’s time to look beyond the conventional. Despite the wackiness of it all, Joe Tracz’s book makes it all feel entirely natural, and the audience can immediately accept the sci fi premise and focus on the intelligent and heart-warming story.
This definition of a very modern musical has a set comprised of a large electronic screen, the initial graphics, which represent homes and the school hallways, are reminiscent of a Game Boy, later becoming more advanced to represent Jeremy’s altered mental state.
It serves as a backdrop to a small cast, many of whom multi-role. The transfer to a such a large stage does could have made it feel lacking in places, but overall, it manages to retain much of the intimate feel it had at The Other Palace, while bursting with energy at every turn.
Under the direction of Stephen Brackett, this time round the cast seem more…well…chill, it feels like they have experimented more with their characters and really got inside the skin of them. No more so than in a simply outstanding performance from Scott Folan, who perfectly portrays teenage angst as Jeremy, with a hunched frame accentuating the character’s vulnerability and anxiety, while at the same time belting out unbelievably complex songs. Folan works well with the personification of his S.Q.U.I.P. (Keanu Reeve), played with wonderful menace by Stewart Clarke.
Since the first run of Be More Chill, Blake Patrick Anderson has wowed audiences in online productions, including the Hope Mill Theatre’s Rent, but it’s as Michael Mell we see the breadth of talent on offer. Delivering the iconic ‘Michael in the Bathroom’ the audience are gripped, pulled head first in to the characters torment at losing his best friend to a Japanese drug.
Two other standout performances come from Miracle Chance as the kooky but delightful Christine, lighting up the stage with a remarkable presence, and James Hammed as Rich Goranski, taking a relatively low key role and making it pivotal.
Aside from the exceptional performances, it is the score, brimming with earworms, that will really delight the audience. High energy dance numbers sit comfortably alongside tender ballads, giving the musical depth and self-awareness. Chase Brocks choreography is lively and vibrant, and in scenes like ‘Two Player Game’ we see a synchronicity that embodies the heart of this musicals message.
Be More Chill is a meaningful commentary on youth culture, but perhaps more importantly, it is just incredibly good fun, and that’s just what we all need right now. It has just enough comedy elements not to distract from a superb score and capable cast, meaning you don’t have to be Gen Z to enjoy this musical, as its subtle but vital message can resonate with us all. This current West End home may be temporary, but Be More Chill’s impact on London theatre will be long-lived.