sun 14/07/2024

Be More Chill, The Other Palace review - more exhausting than enlightening | reviews, news & interviews

Be More Chill, The Other Palace review - more exhausting than enlightening

Be More Chill, The Other Palace review - more exhausting than enlightening

American theatre phenomenon pushes buttons aplenty to diminishing effect

Turning Japanese: Stewart Clarke as The Squip in 'Be More Chill'

This latest musical theatre exercise in “geek chic” has been an American phenomenon: a show propelled by social media that developed a rabid fan base taking it all the way to Broadway last year.

And here Be More Chill now is in London at The Other Palace, previously home to Heathers – another American musical about the psychological torture inherent in being a teen – and arriving in time to suggest Dear Evan Hansen on amphetamines, but with much familiar pushing of buttons where an honest appeal to the heart might be.

Not that the adoring public for this lunatic sci-fi paean to normalcy will give a fig about – yuk! – critics. Everything about the director Stephen Brackett’s production of composer Joe Iconis’s projection-intensive fantasia is writ wearying large and comes wrapped up in a brash (and wildly overlong) production that seems afraid to pause for breath. A likable cast is headed by a strong-voiced Scott Folan (pictured below with Blake Patrick Anderson) as the lovesick dweeb, Jeremy, who mistakenly pops a Japanese-manufactured pill – why Japan, one wonders? – that he hopes will make him popular only to face the inevitable post-interval discovery that he’s actually (quel surprise) just fine as he is.

Scott Folan and Blake Patrick Anderson in 'Be More Chill'A passing reference to Hamlet suggests serious aspirations at work, which is to elevate to the point of absurdity material pitched at such a maniacal level throughout that you want to give out Ritalin tablets all round. It’s fairly clear, as well, that the male creative team has little idea what to do with their female characters (pictured below), almost all of whom are either self-glorifying ditzes – Jeremy’s adored Christine (the wonderfully named Miracle Chance), a star of the school stage in roles like Blanche DuBois, if you please – or predatory gossips: the aptly surnamed Brooke Lohst played at full volume, as are most of her, um, friends, by Eloise Davies.

the distaff trio of 'Be More Chill'Wouldn’t it be simpler if Jeremy and his genial bestie, Michael (Blake Patrick Anderson), ran off with one another? That option isn't in the frame for a narrative that is at base far more small-c conservative than the whirligig of a show encapsulated by Beowulf Boritt's design might suggest, an aesthetic intended (with the sound and projection components in overdrive) to bombard you with enough stimuli that you won't pause to question or reflect.

Anyway Jeremy’s layabout dad, who likes to wander about in his underwear, would persumably have something to say about that, were he not in line for his own self-reckoning just in time for the final bow. One feels for Christopher Fry, who has to juggle that thankless part with that of the drama teacher, who for some unknown reason is required to speak with a cornpone southern accent. (That must explain why Tennessee Williams is on the menu.) As life lessons go, Iconis's lyrics certainly offer a novel one in the dad's admission to his (understandably) embarrassed son, "When you love somebody you put your pants on". 

Anderson, for his part, bats the show’s breakout song, “Michael in the Bathroom”, out of the park, and the ever-welcome Stewart Clarke has fun as a baddie who is said to resemble Keanu Reeves and doesn’t in the slightest. This actor's CV includes a British musical, Loserville, which could work as an alternate title here, not to mention the pogrom environs of the recent, and excellent, Fiddler on the Roof. There's a musical about as far away as you can get from the kimono-swirling theatrics of The Squip, who advises the hapless Jeremy, "You need to get popular" – a sentiment that is more or less de rigueur in most new American musicals, or so it would seem.

Originality, not to mention an inbuilt logic, don't figure much in a show whose call to self-empowerment would land far better if it could only, well, be more chill. Folan gets an Effie White-style first-act finale which a tireless Folan delivers to the back row of theatres several streets away, and there's a funny Prince sight gag in the Halloween sequence that kicks off the second act. But time and again, the creators, book writer Joe Tracz included, settle for the cheesiest option: A Midsummer Night's Dream relocated to Athens, Georgia, that offers one of many moments in a tiresome show where I nodded in sympathy when one character notes ruefully in passing "the things we do for art".


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