‘Be More Chill’ Earns Area Stage a Place at the Cool Kids’ Table

Just when you start to worry that Be More Chill might be shaping up to be a conventional coming of age comedy, it instead takes a turn for the gloriously insane. This is Area Stage Company’s first show as a tenant of the Adrienne Arsht Center, and the partnership is definitely getting off to a smashing start with this high-strung high school musical. 

For one thing, production values are dependably high as video game motifs present throughout the script are echoed in the excellent set and lighting design as well as in the show’s innovative use of actual video, with some of the evening’s biggest “wow” moments coming from the synergy of story and impressive visual effects. 

As far as the script, though, I was almost starting to tune out after an opening number and first solo that seemed a little by-the-numbers when the show started to come to life in a big way with the introduction of the Squip, a “gray oblong pill” illegally imported from Japan that, basically, comes with the promise of making anyone who takes it popular. 

It’s easy to understand why the desperate and dorky Jeremy is driven to take this Squip, which then manifests physically (and for the audience, aurally) in the form of a voice in his head. And once he starts to reap the rewards of the Squip’s insights, it’s easy to see why he continues to acquiesce to its bizarre and increasingly sinister machinations even as they take him further and further away from his former self.

The 2015 musical, which garnered mixed reviews from the critics but amassed a cult following of enthusiastic young fans on the internet, offers a fun sci-fi twist on a classic “be careful what you wish for” story. It may be headed towards a familiar be-yourself moral, but it at least takes a few refreshingly ridiculous detours along the way. 

For instance, a rolicking Halloween party scene is followed up by a cheery group number about arson is followed by a production of A Midsummer Nightmare About Zombies (an apocalyptic lampoon of the Shakespearean classic) that nearly becomes the catalyst for a global nanotechnology takeover. 

And, in true thematically appropriate form, Be More Chill is at its best when it is unafraid to be its weirdest, in these moments and in many of its truly original musical numbers, some of which use implied double entendre to their hilarious advantage and others that offer a surprisingly heartfelt view into just how painful adolescent insecurity and isolation can be.  

And though the show’s major romance subplot felt a little hollow, with the relationships that Jeremy and Christine have with the “wrong” love interests feeling far more developed than the one the plot inevitably forces them into with each other, the disconnections and reconciliations between friends that Be More Chill portrays felt far more resonant, which lent the narrative enough heft to make at least a minor emotional impact along with just making us laugh.

A first rate cast of actors, of course, only sweetens the whole deal. As is often the case when one comes across a sufficiently talented ensemble, it is a thankless task to attempt to name highlights, though pointing first to Teddy Calvin’s embodiment of the lead character Jeremy as he transitions from painfully awkward teenager to squipped-out life of the party also seems appropriate. 

Rachel Barsness provides some impressive vocals as Christine if maybe not coming off quite as quirky as the script suggests her character might be, and Aaron Hagos aces several comedic numbers as Jeremy’s beleaguered best friend Michael.

Luke Surretsky’s portrayal of the unhinged Rich and Frank Montoto’s equally deranged vocal stylings as the Squip also are probably worth a mention, as are Harley Muir and Katie Duerr as seductive members of the in-crowd that Jeremy seeks to infiltrate. Probably, it’s the vivacity and commitment of the cast that is most responsible for leaving me so impressed by the overall quality of the production, which will be up and running until this February 27th if you’re curious as to whether you’ll find it similarly transporting. In the end, Be More Chill itself is probably too old-school and all-over-the-place of a show to be one I’d ever name as a personal favorite, but the sheer buoyancy of its earnest silliness also makes it hard to imagine anyone to whom its whimsy would not on some level appeal.

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