by Lynn Marie Macy · June 12, 2015
Will Connolly and cast members | T. Charles Erickson
The World Premiere of Be More Chill has opened at Two River Theater in Red Bank New Jersey. Based on a popular young adult novel by Ned Vizzini about insecure teenager Jeremy Heere (Will Connolly) trying to survive high school life. At the onset Jeremy and his best friend Michael (George Salazar) are inseparable but Jeremy has dreams of being popular and catching the eye of Christine (Stephanie Hsu) the cute girl in drama club. He is routinely tormented by Rich (Gerard Canonico) an obnoxious bully who eventually confesses that he was a nerd once too but became popular after taking a Japanese pill containing a supercomputer called The Squip (Eric Michael Morris) that promises to “upgrade” and lead its user to ultimate popularity and the realization of all their dreams. Jeremy is seduced by the possibility of acceptance by the “popular” kids and winning the heart of Christine.
But The Squip turns out to be way more than anyone had bargained for.
Book by Joe Tracz, pop rock music and clever lyrics by Joe Iconis are loads of fun and certainly capture the teenage angst ridden realm of suburban high school life. Particularly memorable numbers in Act I are - "I Love Play Rehearsal", where Christine expounds on her quirky joy in self-expression and the "Two Player Game", a delightful combination of song and synchronized movement that perfectly underscores the close connection between Jeremy and Michael as best friends. In Act II "Michael in Bathroom" is a complete showstopper. Director Stephen Brackett has done an extraordinary job in pulling the various elements of the production together. He has assembled a top-notch cast and an extraordinarily gifted artistic team. The production is vigorously and creatively directed with sharp attention paid to every numerous detail. The wonderful set by Dan Laffrey takes the audience from the School to the Mall to home in the blink of an eye. All the set pieces are on wheels and are stylistically coordinated to fluidly connect and create a unique backdrop to every scene with surprisingly few technical bumps (sure to be ironed out over the course of the run.) Laffrey has also created a second level of catwalks and scaffolds that are The Squip’s universe and representative of Jeremy’s brain. Beautiful lighting design by Tyler Micoleau is integral to the whole and impressive in its ability to highlight and transition. Jeremy’s “brain” often felt like the inside of a video game. (I confess a little thrill when I noted the electronically rotating lighting instruments – you don’t see that very often in theater.) Supporting Brackett’s Direction is Chase Brock’s innovative and precise choreography, which lifts the production to yet another level of accomplishment. Costumes by Bobby Frederick Tilley II are colorful as well as entertaining, a seemingly endless array of outfits, personas and even Halloween costumes and I absolutely loved the hilarious bonus characters we ran into at the Mall.
Will Connelly as awkward teen Jeremy had just the right mix of insecurity and bravado, George Salazar, as Michael, his best friend, was all heart, Stephanie Hsu played Christine with pluck and comic assuredness. As the popular girls Katlyn Carlson, Katie Ladner and Lauren Marcus each knocked it out of the park. Gerard Canonico made Rich a curiosity of comic intensity. Jake Boyd as Jake Dillinger the school jock had moments of earnestness that left us wanting more from him. As The Squip Eric William Morris scaled the catwalks with ease, relishing his power and cutting a heroic figure before turning to the dark side. And Paul Whitty excelled in three roles including Jeremy’s Dad who cannot seem to summon the strength on a daily basis to put on his pants.
As yet another story about teenage angst from the perspective of an adolescent boy Be More Chill may not have completely broad appeal and while the story is set in contemporary New Jersey, it retains a retro feel of anytime and anywhere America. Sadly some of the characters remain less developed than others. But this World Premiere production at Two River Theater certainly more than does justice to the source material, which may be the least exciting part of the whole. If you find yourself in Red Bank New Jersey you cannot go wrong visiting an uplifting performance of Be More Chill.