by Jillian Carter
Preparing for Be More Chill’s opening night at Lincoln Community Playhouse, I decided to avoid too much information about the musical. I like to go in with a fresh slate and open mind when possible. This was easier said than done, since much of the music and story are just part of our cultural zeitgeist now. As the first (and I’d imagine not last) musical propelled to Broadway by social media, Be More Chill is everywhere, even if you don’t realize it. I took my daughter with me last night, on the eve of her ninth birthday, and she kept saying, “Hey, I know this song,” throughout the production. How does an eight-year-old know the song “A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into”? The answer is YouTube and parents that are a little more than lax about screen time.
The one thing I knew for certain about Be More Chill was that it is full of teenage angst. I prepared myself for the kind of manufactured drama that left me uneasy, even when I was a teenager, like Dawson’s Creek or Beverly Hills 90210, shows that I could never relate to full of entitled kids with problems that never rang true. I have never been so happy to be so wrong.
Be More Chill is full of teenage angst, but in the most authentic and relatable way. In the opening number, “More Than Survive,” there is a lyric sung by the protagonist (a fully committed Alex Rownd as Jeremy Heere) that explains “Freaking out is my okay.” If that doesn’t speak to the overthinking anxiety of the majority of today’s population, I don’t know what could. At 36, I am not at all the target demographic of this show, but I could easily identify with the themes of surviving vs. thriving, sacrificing for potential outcomes, and simply wanting to feel included. At its best, Be More Chill recalled my favorite teen movies of the 1980s, Can’t Buy Me Love and Grease 2, but with more perspectives and more three-dimensional characters.
One of those wonderfully complex characters is Michael Mell, Jeremy’s best friend, who is so much more than a sidekick. Usually, the left-behind-for-popularity friend is just that – left behind, but the genius of Be More Chill is that archetypes are pushed, with even this usually forgotten and flat character being awarded depth and stage time. Michael is truly the heart of the show, and Austin Rousseau plays him with the most natural musical theatre talent I’ve ever witnessed in community theatre. Every lyric he sang rang out with genuine emotion and inflections that almost made me forget he wasn’t just having a conversation while playing video games; he was singing full-out and doing complicated choreography. I won’t spoil the plot, but have your tissues ready for Rousseau’s solo, “Michael in the Bathroom.”
The other standout performance belongs to Sam Ninegar as The Squip, the super-nano-computer implanted in Jeremy’s head to make him more chill. Ninegar brings a particular brand of calm to the character that was unexpected and quite frankly, brilliant. He has a matter-of-fact delivery, where every gesture and phrase are just a little clipped. His lines are dramatic, but he’s just too chill to overdo anything. Even when laughing maniacally, his cackle stops a full beat or more earlier than expected. Show me another actor who has the restraint to pull back and not take full advantage of a maniacal laugh onstage! I don’t know whether to credit Ninegar or Director Molly Gilmartin, but The Squip has so many fun little moments when he’s not the center of attention, from subtly gesturing his marionette-like control of Jeremy to reading the ingredients list on candy. It is a great character portrayed by a fine actor directed to his full potential. Win-win-win.
Other notable performances come from Soren Tobey, whose energy as Chloe was contagious and whose voice is ridiculously gorgeous and strong, and Claire Wilkinson, whose Christine was interestingly nuanced and genuinely seemed to be having fun. This was a large departure from the last time I saw Wilkinson as Belle in Beauty and the Beast at Pinewood Bowl this summer, but no less impressive. Her solo, “I Love Play Rehearsal,” was clearly an audience favorite. Micayla Brown as Jenna has a real breakout moment in “The Pitiful Children,” when her big voice is put to good use, and Chloe Schwarting’s Brooke is an intriguing combination of sexy and innocent that reminds me of Alicia Silverstone in Clueless.
While there wasn’t a weak link in the cast, there were a few ensemble members who also stood out and certainly deserve to be mentioned. Salvador Diaz-Debose, Sarah Koca, and Chaney Bernt were full of vim and vigor in every dance scene, every ensemble song, and just every moment they were on the stage. The show would not have been nearly as entertaining without their gusto.
Finally, something must be said for the technical aspects of the show. Like many current shows, the set was minimal and technology used to bring certain aspects to life. Scenic Designer Douglas Clarke and Lighting Designer Kathleen Turner were able to effectively showcase different settings, times, and tones with a subtlety I found refreshing in a show all about contemporary technology. I don’t pretend to know anything about dance, but the choreography was engaging and looked challenging though the actors pulled it off flawlessly, so kudos also to Choreographer Kayleigh Schadwinkel and Dance Captains Diaz-Debose and Tobey.
I’d love to leave you with two final thoughts.
- This was one of the most polished opening nights I have ever seen. Not a flubbed line, uncomfortable pause, or shaky spotlight in sight.
- I went in thinking Be More Chill was like Nebraska, “not for everyone,” but that’s not true. From the college kids behind me to the almost nine-year-old beside me, from the octogenarians in the front row to the high schoolers onstage, this show is relevant and enjoyable for everyone. Go see it!
(Speaking of that nine-year-old, if you want to know what she thought about the show, her review is here.)
If you go: Remaining performances of Be More Chill at Lincoln Community Playhouse (2500 South 56th Street) are October 26, 27, 31, and November 1-3. Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Saturday, November 2, includes a 2:00 p.m. matinee. Tickets are available online and at the LCP box office.
Jillian Carter is a local playwright, director, and actress. She has four rockstar kids, a dashing husband, and a book/script collection that is bordering on hoarding. She is the managing editor of Appearing Locally.
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