Meet the romantic musical comedy leads of Be More Chill, now playing at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota: Jeremy Heere (Maxwell Emmett Ward) and Christine Canigula (Caitlin Featherstone). Photo by Scott Pakudaitis.
If you follow what’s playing on Broadway, you were probably surprised to hear that Be More Chill opened in Minneapolis just a month after the show opened in New York. Broadway producers not being known for being generous about rival productions, the licensing agreements that send shows off to Broadway often include restrictive clauses banning regional theatre productions. A local production of Be More Chill by Minneapolis Musical Theatre, now playing at the Illusion Theater in downtown Minneapolis, is a happy exception.
Watching MMT’s production, it’s easy to see how this show became a cult Off-Broadway hit and, now, a full-on Broadway show. It’s a fresh-feeling, different, and contemporary take on the high school musical, complete with a sci-fi twist. (Bring It On: The Musical this is not.) The first half of the opening song feels like it will end up on the Broadway cutting floor, but most of the rest just moves like a charm.
One of the show’s virtues is that the score is filled with catchy songs written by composer-lyricist Joe Iconis. Many are gems, like “Michael in a Bathtub” – a surprising marriage of a ballad of the downtrodden to an uptempo number, delivered to great effect and pathos by Jim Belden (as Michael Mell), or just plain fun, like “Two-Player Game” (a peppy and fun song about playing videogames, delivered by Belden and Jeremy Heere (as Maxwell Emmett Ward, the central character in this high school comedy mock-drama).
This being a show set in high school, you know that there’s going to be some sort of romantic angst threading through the story. The object of Maxwell’s affection is Christine Canigula, a theatre nerd played engagingly by Caitlin Featherstone, who rocks her featured songs (“I Love Play Rehearsal” and “A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into”). The object of Maxwell’s rejection ends up being his long-time best friend Michael, thanks to a decision to “upgrade his life” into the cool zone with The Squip (Mike Tober).
Besides its videogame references, Be More Chill also pokes fun at smartphone use and social media, with one of the highlights of Act II being the group number “The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire)”. It’s not heavy-hearted and serious commentary, more a clever sendup – the “it’s funny because it’s true” vein that runs through Joe Tracz’s script. The cast of characters has a bit of genre-awareness and wry commentary on the plot events, which keeps the tone lighter even in the more serious times.
It’s been some years since the New Century Theatre closed, putting Minneapolis Musical Theater on the road as an itinerant group. The Illusion Theater is a vastly superior acoustic for Be More Chill, and significant use is made of the vertical space that the higher ceiling allows. Director Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha and choreographer Abbi Fern keep the 10-person cast moving to fill the stage, although the production feels like a few more bodies would not have been unwelcome.
The show’s music benefitted from a strong, 6-person pit ensemble led Anna Murphy, who serves as the music director, conductor, and lead keyboard player. With two Mainstage-driven keyboards and a multi-instrumental wind player at their disposal, the pit ensemble showed a lot more variety of sound than you’d expect from a production of this scale, including chip music sounds that add a great deal to the retro-nerdy feel of some songs.
A note on content: While Be More Chill is set in a high school, this isn’t a fluffy all-ages tale. Sex is discussed a fair bit, and the show includes the kind of entendres that would do a blues song proud in the seductive “Do You Wanna Ride” (steamily delivered by Jordyn KarlyAna Catanach and Alexis Larson) and “Do You Wanna Hang?” (Larson).
Be More Chill plays at the Illusion Theater in downtown Minneapolis, MN through April 28.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.