Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Be More Chill
The Tony Awards aren't until June 9, but the show is nominated in the category of Best Original Score for its complex and enjoyable tunes. Here, under the co-direction of Michael Dowdy-Windsor and company founder Scott Miller, the cast is bright and engaged (we unofficially credit Mr. Dowdy-Windsor for this sort of thing) and melancholy and anguished (we usually credit Mr. Miller for this) but perfectly melodic, under the musical direction of Nicolas Valdez.
The musical started in regional theater in 2015, moved to Off-Broadway in 2018, and Broadway this year, becoming officially grafted into the lineage of shows about pixilated adolescents. The 1960 Bye Bye Birdie song "The Telephone Hour" is updated here as "The Smartphone Hour" in act two. And much of the show evokes a long list of sock-hop yarns that were set between world wars, both major and minor, during a time when kids could finally be kids again. But there's also a persistently odd, dark echo throughout, especially in "The Squip Song," evoking the pounding bridge of the 1959 song popularized by Paul Revere and the Raiders, "Indian Reservation." "The Squip Song" is about that magic pill, a nano-computer you swallow to "be more chill" (after the fashion of The Nutty Professor, 1963). And the ghost of 1960s rocker Paul Revere Dick hovers again at this show's Halloween party, till a more modern joke is unveiled for a character in a velvet suit and ruffled shirt. And of course "Squip" (both the pill and the character it generates in your mind, played nicely by Dominic Dowdy-Windsor) reminds some of us of "Vip," the mysterious product from the 1961 movie Lover Come Back.
So Be More Chill is a compelling excoriation if you're young, and a sort of vintage/antique shop of the mind if you're old, as we all struggle to understand this brave new world. The main teenage characters also have a fascination with the 1990s (which will appeal to anyone aged in-between), along with a powerful thirst for Pepsi-Cola products. And that, little children, is called good marketing.
But it's all done beautifully, in spite of a couple of slow spots near the end of each act. Jayde Mitchell is terrifically nuanced as Jeremy, the teenage spaz who's tired of feeling like a loser, and Kevin Corpuz is outstanding as his best friend, with a long and very powerful soliloquy, "Michael in the Bathroom," during a Halloween costume party. Grace Langford is wonderfully enthusiastic as Jeremy's possible/likely girlfriend Christine, and Laura Renfro is slyly wicked as Chloe, the bad girl.
There's a delightful mock cameo by Zachary Allen Farmer who plays three parts here, including Jeremy's father and a soulless pill-pusher, as well as (most memorably for critics) a high school drama teacher who bears a striking resemblance to director/producer Miller. It restores our faith in self-mockery to see Mr. Farmer in a blond wig and glasses, directing a school version of A Midsummer Night's Dream with zombies, especially after the fantastic Zombies of Penzance adapted by Mr. Miller himself earlier this season.
Be More Chill is built around the classic conflict of individualism and the pressure to conform to a group identity, which seemed to delight the younger members of the audience opening night. And the struggle between those two forces becomes unexpectedly wrenching and dark near the endthough the show also has a sort of vampire-hunters' happy ending, after all.
Be More Chill, through June 22, 2019, at New Line Theatre, Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Dr., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.newlinetheatre.com.
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