I enjoyed ‘Be More Chill’ this time. And no, that isn’t the wine talking.
By Peter Marks Theater critic
July 23, 2019
Now, it’s a lot more chill.
The musical, I mean. “Be More Chill,” a modest teenage sci-fi rom-com, turned up on Broadway in February as an overproduced, overamplified exercise in frantic excess and recently had to announce the end of its short life there. Meantime, a savvy theater company in Alexandria proceeded with plans to mount a more spartan version of the show. And what do you know? “Be More Chill” is being performed as it was always meant to be.
That is to say, modestly, in this case in a 70-seat black-box theater on the campus of a Northern Virginia boarding school by four-year-old Monumental Theatre Company. It turns out all that’s essential for the show to achieve maximum tuneful silliness is an excellent seven-member band (here conducted by Marika Countouris), a few incidental set pieces by Simone Schneeberg suggesting a generic high school, and a cast of splendid actor-singers, led by Ben Ribler, Jyline Carranza, Christian Montgomery and Caroline Dubberly.
The magnitude of my enjoyment was directly inverse to the frustration I experienced with the New York production, and as a result, it convinced me that the musical, with a score by Joe Iconis and book by Joe Tracz, could have a long and happy life in smallish venues from coast to coast. (Some dialogue will have to be scrubbed for the high school drama clubs that will be clamoring for the rights to the material.)
Teenage musical-theater devotees, of course, have already Spotify-ed the cast recording, or memorized the songs through whatever other streaming service they’ve got. Based on a novel of the same name, the show amassed a huge online following after its premiere at a theater in Red Bank, N.J., in 2015. The misguided march to Broadway provided a textbook example of how not to harness the energy of this enterprise, the bae of many young admirers’ existences. Not every piece of pop-culture fluff belongs, pumped up, on a big stage. A show like “Be More Chill” loses some part of its exuberant essence when more is made of it than what it can deliver.
The folks at Monumental understand this: I attended the company’s special 10 p.m. Friday performance, which included a drinking game. “Take a sip when a cast member says Squip,” began a handout distributed in the lobby of Episcopal High School’s Ainslie Arts Center. Any “Be More Chill” veteran knows this is an oft-repeated word in the musical, referring to the musical’s nuttiest invention: a character (played with persuasive authority by Dubberly) that is the manifestation of a pill-size supercomputer, controlling the mind of the musical’s hero, Jeremy, handled terrifically by the always appealing Ribler.
The show is a satire of one of high school’s most nefarious aspirations — the desire to be popular, a theme treated regularly in pop musicals including “Wicked” and “Dear Evan Hansen” (and going all the way back to “Bye Bye Birdie,” to which “Be More Chill” slyly pays homage). Owing to the strained obviousness of its comedy, “Be More Chill” is a lesser entry in this genre. Still, Iconis has written a pleasingly up-tempo score, chockablock with numbers to animate the hormone-rich world of locker-lined hallways. “A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into,” sung with sweet panache by Carranza, as Jeremy’s dream girl, and “Do You Wanna Ride,” performed with carnivorous relish by the popular girls, Brooke (Geocel Batista) and Chloe (Molly Rumberger), giddily illuminate the byzantine mating rituals of American adolescence.
Best of all, though, is the teenage-angst song “Michael in the Bathroom,” for Jeremy’s discarded best friend, and delivered by Montgomery with just the right feel for the overdramatic. Under the smooth guidance of director Izzy Smelkinson and choreographer Patricia “Pep” Targete, he and the other actors make winning economical use of the small performance space.
I won’t say it was the drinking game that enhanced “Be More Chill’s” watchability, even though I bought the extra-large glass of wine at the concession stand. My fellow audience members displayed commendable self-control, even after the 44th mention or so of “Squip.” No, I chalk my newfound pleasure up to seeing it done in the right place, by the right company.
Be More Chill, music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, book by Joe Tracz. Directed by Izzy Smelkinson. Music directions, Marika Countouris; choreography, Patricia “Pep” Targete; lighting, Helen Garcia-Alton; props, Jenn Taglieri; costumes, Kristen P. Ahern. With Jonathan Helwig, Nigel Rowe, Derrick Truby and Allison Bradbury. About 2 hours 15 minutes. $35-$40. Through Aug. 2 at Ainslie Arts Center, 3900 W. Braddock Rd., Alexandria.