By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor
What if nerdy, loner you could take a pill (OK, a tiny supercomputer named SQUIP or Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor) and suddenly be the most brilliant, charismatic person you ever met? Or the sexiest woman or man in town? Or more…wait for it…chill? Would that make you totally happy? Think so? Dream on suckers…
Monumental Theatre Co. and the brilliant writing team of Joe Iconis (music and lyrics) and Joe Tracz (book) are posing that question in the (surprising to me!) jewel of a musical, “Be More Chill”. But first, a little background on the development of this fascinating production, which is based on a 2004 novel for young adults by Ned Vizzini. “Be More Chill” premiered May 2015 in Red Bank New Jersey, went on to an off-Broadway production in 2018 and finally, on to Broadway (closing in August).
The original 2015 production played in an intimate house and setting to a much smaller audience than the current Broadway production. That original cast recorded a cast album which, through the magic of social media, went viral and millions of tweens, teens, and way older folks heard over 200 million streams and loved the score. In September 2018, Monumental Theatre Co., in its wisdom, got the rights to stage the original production. That’s the version we are seeing now, not the much larger, more commercialized version currently playing on Broadway.
Now, one caution before you bring young children to see this show: there is a “pants theme” which runs through the show and it opens with a fairly graphic depiction of, well…I’ll let you guess. Other than that, and some discussion of porn, the sex discussions and off-color language are pretty mild.
The cast is absolutely first-rate in every way! Each cast member can sing up a storm, dance well and the fight scene is amazing! Ben Ribler (Jeremy) and Christian Montgomery (Michael) lead this marvelous cast including the somewhat evil, almost human SQUIP (Caroline Dubberly) and the only level-headed teen other than Michael, Christine, is beautifully portrayed by Jyline Carranza. The rest of this stand-out cast includes Allison Bradbury (Jenna), Derrick D. Truby Jr. (Mr. Reyes/Mr. Heere/Scary Stock Boy), Geocel Batista (Brooke), Jonathan Helwig (Jake), Molly Rumberger (Chloe) and Nigel Rowes (Rich).
Christian Montgomery’s performance of “Michael in the Bathroom” is a standout. Brought down the house. Christian is a powerhouse performer and exudes a sweetness and calm that Jeremy (superbly acted by Ben Ribler) needs but throws away when he’s under the influence of the fabulous SQUIP (Caroline Dubberly). I promise that you will be thinking about and replaying unforgettable scenes from this show long after you see it.
The music is wonderfully realized by Marika Countouris and her orchestra of six including reed and keyboard, guitar, percussion, bass, trumpet and theremin. And yes, much of it is loud, but not overpoweringly so. You must hear this! It’s very well balanced by Jordana Abrenica, sound designer. By the way, the entire creative team are women! Monumental Theatre Co. felt that since the book and music were done from a male perspective, women could make a profound statement creatively. It works!
The staging by Simone Schneeberg, which is made up of mostly modular pieces representing school lockers, a Murphy bed in Jeremy’s room, the school auditorium, and a Payless Shoe store, works beautifully with the jazzy and somewhat futuristic lighting of Helen Garcia-Alton. The timeframe is about 2013, so there are no ubiquitous cell phones and the vibe created by director Izzy Smelkinson harkens a bit back to the Sci-Fi movies of the 50’s and 60’s. There is a sweetness about this truly cutting-edge production that makes it easy to like and a “must-see” this summer!
Spoiler Alert!!! In the end, Jeremy realizes, as do the other teens who took the SQUIP pill to be more chill, that in order to have the best life you must be yourself. Jeremy and his new friends had to go through some bad and sometimes Sci-Fi-like spooky patches in order to learn that life lesson, but ultimately, the search was worth it.
Ticket and Production Information: “Be More Chill” presented by Monumental Theatre Co., runs from July 11-29, 2019, at the Ainslie Arts Center on the campus of Episcopal High School, 3900 West Braddock Road, Alexandria, VA 22304. Tickets may be purchased online at http://www.monumentaltheatre.org/be-more-chill.html.