Be More Chill (Phoenix Ensemble)
October 30 – November 21
Immediately, audiences know they are in for something special at the Queensland premiere production of “Be More Chill”. Beenleigh Showgrounds’ tin shed has been impressively transformed with elaborate production values for Phoenix Ensemble’s production of the cult hit musical, with a deliberateness to the detail that only adds to the dynamic aesthetic. From the interval soundtrack of electronic music numbers to the visible cords of its lighting setup, the audience is, in every way possible, transported to the world of the fresh, contemporary musical.
“Be More Chill” is an exciting sci-fi teen musical comedy that takes the adolescent angst of “Dear Evan Hansen” and adds some artificial intelligence. It is a musical rooted in contemporary adolescent issues during our social-media-driven age, however, it goes beyond digital culture challenges to also explore universal themes of family and friendship. The show, which is based on a novel by Ned Vizzini, is engaging from its first ‘More than Survive’ ‘c-c-c-come on’ refrain as social outcast Jeremy (Christopher Batkin) wonders if someone can help him. As a high school loser, he is bullied every day by Rich (Adam Goodal), the most popular kid in school, which does not help his ambition to impress his big crush, theatre-obsessed Christine (Juliette Ebert) who only has eyes for handsome school jock Jake (Daniel Lelic). Jeremy’s home life isn’t happy either; his father (Stephen Morris) has barely bothered to fully dress himself since Jeremy’s mother walked out on the family. At least he has a solid friend in Michael (Macca Kelly) with whom he shares an interest in video gaming.
When during rehearsal for the school production of ‘A Midsummer Nightmare (About Zombies)’ (which becomes a show-within-the-show parody), Jeremy becomes jealous of Jake and Christine’s flirtation and finds himself being offered information about the secret behind Rich’s social success: a SQUIP gray oblong pill that implants a supercomputer in pill form that tells you what to do and say in order to boost your popularity! (#itsfromJapan) In attempt to be more chill, Jeremy buys himself a pill and gives it a shot, only to be met with conflicting voices in his head, arguing for dominance over his free will. Thanks to a megalomaniacal microprocessor (Michael Mills), that sounds like Keanu Reeves, Jeremy suddenly becomes the cool kid in school, attracting the attention of those who previously ignored him. But his newfound popularity comes at a price, including alienating his former best friend so is the SQUIP more than he can swallow?
There are no weak links among the energetic cast. It is a particularly physical show for Batkin yet he maintains a demeanor that epitomises a stereotypical high school nerd. Also caricatures, are the Queen Bee and her Beta minion characters who are energised by Taylah Mclennan and Ellen Axford. Indeed, the supporting cast is full of talent. Mills conjures some amusing reactions as the personal life coach that only Jeremy can see. Goodall’s relish of his Ritch role is infectiously appealing, particularly in the show’s closing scenes and Morris is a crowd favourite in dual roles as Jeremy’s dad and the over-the-top I-hate-teaching-high-schoolers-mediocre-drama teacher Mr Reyes, making Act Two’s ‘The Pants Song’ an absolute highlight.
The biggest standout, however, comes in the form of Kelly’s Michael and it is wonderful to see his talent celebrated in melancholy Michael’s eponymous second act ballad “Michael in the Bathroom,” about hiding, alone and nervous, at a party. Not only are his vocals sweetly on-point but the equip the number with a heavy emotional punch beyond what audiences familiar with its 2019 Tony’s parody might expect.
While ‘Michael in the Bathroom’ serves as a clear emotional and musical high point, the show is filled with fun, upbeat numbers, including the title tune and ‘Upgrade’. The early foreshadowing number, ‘Two-Player Game’ is a peppy song from Jeremey and Michael about playing videogames, having each other’s backs and dreaming of being College cool, while Act Two’s mammoth entire company opener ‘Halloween’ ode to the ultimate party has a catchy appeal like that of ‘Who’s House is This?’ from fellow teen musical “Mean Girls”. Indeed, one of the show’s virtues is its score, which is filled with likeable songs written by composer-lyricist Joe Iconis and it is easy to appreciate the movement that took it from a little show in New Jersey to off Broadway and then Broadway proper thanks to fandom for its original soundtrack taking it viral with hundreds of millions of streams.
In this realisation, the live music, under Hayley Marsh’s musical direction, equips the rock and pop style soundtrack with an added retro feel. Creative AV design from Director Benjamin Tubb-Hearne adds depth to scenes and Justin Tubb-Hearne’s costume designs embrace the cartoonishness sensibility of the show’s essential appeal. Joe Tracz’s book gives the audience many laughs, often in unexpected comic moments, without sacrificing sincerity, including a lot of drama nerd humour beyond just sight of a post-apocalyptic Puck. But what else should be expected from a quirky show whose first line of the opening number is: “I’m waiting for my porno to load.”
As a “Dear Evan Hansen” fangirl, I had a feeling I would love “Be More Chill”, even though it lacks that musical’s emotional depth. A lifetime ago in January, I named the 2020 Phoenix Ensemble production as my most anticipated show of the year to come and it has certainly been worth that wait. Experience of the show flies by, not just due to its slick production, but investment in the story’s direction; there is so much happening on stage that it is sometimes difficult to determine where to look. This is a show I could easily watch again and again, if it weren’t for the fact that its season is already sold out. With that in mind, the only question that remains is, when is the company doing “Dear Evan Hansen”?
Photos c/o – Benjamin Tubb-Hearne