Theater

Chilling with the Academy Players: Extraterrestrial mind control is not the solution to teenage angst

Photo by John Voo via Flickr

The story of how the musical Be More Chill came to see its day on Broadway speaks to the digital age and the power of a dedicated cult-following. After the first production in 2015 received mixed reviews, it seemed the show was dead in the water. Two years later, the show was resurrected as it found an online following strong enough to land it in the top 10 of the Billboard Cast Album charts. It’s an underdog story the likes of which we may see again in this, the age of Internet virality. Ultimately, its Broadway run lasted less than a year, earning mixed reviews and a snub from the Tony Awards.

Now that Be More Chill is available for amateur theaters to produce, it becomes easier to see where its real value lies; it is, at its core, a musical of teens and for teens. At Academy Players’ production, it is abundantly clear that this show has endeared itself to both the teenagers performing it and the predominantly young audience (some of whom were actually wearing merchandise from the show).

Be More Chill is a tale of a nerdy high school kid trying to fit in with his more popular peers. This may sound like any number of stories geared towards teens, but this one sets itself apart with a sci-fi twist. The show is based on the young adult novel of the same name by Ned Vizzini, who tragically lost a lengthy battle with depression back in 2013 and never got to see the smash hit his book begot.

Our nerd of the hour is Jeremy Heere (Michael Mercado Jr), a social outcast who is just trying to survive alongside his pot-smoking best friend Michael (Laila Abuzahra), and hopes to catch the attention of his crush Christine (Kathryn Kimble), an eccentric theater geek who doesn’t know he exists. Standing in his way are his embarrassing, recently-divorced and always-pantless father (Lia Gallagher), his homophobic bully Rich (Connor Pyne) and the rest of the popular kids, including his rival in love, Jake (Michael Viveiros) and a trio of secretly insecure popular girls (Audra Hawkins as Jenna, Ellie Ash as Chloe and Rebecca Devivo as Brooke).

In a rare moment of generosity, Rich clues Jeremy in on the secret to his ascent into popularity: the Squip, a pill that when taken with Mountain Dew will implant a super computer into his brain that will instruct him in what to do and say to become more popular. Jeremy’s Squip (Bec Patsenker) presents itself as an ally with Jeremy’s best interests at heart, assuring him that abandoning his best friend, breaking Brooke’s heart and telling off his father are necessary steps on the path to becoming “more chill” and winning the heart of Christine. After Rich’s squip starts malfunctioning, though, it becomes clear that the Squip has more sinister intentions: to control all “the pitiful children” of the world.

There is something hilariously meta about seeing Jeremy get called “gay” by his peers for signing up for the school play (which, ironically, he does for the entirely heterosexual reason of getting close to Christine) in a show with a lot of genderbending and where the girls consistently outshine the boys. This is particularly satisfying to see in a story that reeks of the male gaze. With all due respect to the late Ned Vizzini, writing female characters was not his strong suit. Given that the musical is written by two Joes (Iconis and Tracz), these problems are not exactly resolved in the writing of the show. Where Vizzini’s strengths lay instead were in his honest portrayals of mental illness and teenage life.

Though he is Jeremy’s second fiddle, Michael ends up being the emotional center of the show, and Abuzahra does a fantastic job of bringing the audience on his emotional rollercoaster from the energetic (though sometimes hard to understand given its rapid-fire delivery) “Two Player Game” to the iconic “Michael in the Bathroom” and back for a reprise of “Two Player Game,” all the while remaining a steadfast friend who gets forsaken but finds it in his heart to forgive his friend and fight by his side.

As Christine, Kimble gives a performance full of whimsy. She is not what one thinks of as the typical love interest in this kind of story, but her security in her weirdness is precisely what Jeremy needs to learn from. The moments they have together when Jeremy is able to be himself show a sweet future for the couple in which they can just be weird together – the kind of relationship anyone should aspire to.

The absolute rockstar of this production is Patsenker as the Squip. She invokes a kind of otherworldly presence befitting the personification of this dystopian technology, as well as a commanding presence as the puppetmaster and conductor, controlling Jeremy’s every move (at one point, she literally conducts the on-stage band). In every number Patsenker is in, she absolutely kills it, from the title number to the epic villain song, “The Pitiful Children.” Her vocals are by far the most powerful in the cast.

Another highlight is Gallagher as Michael’s father and the drama teacher. Though these are less prevalent roles, Gallagher brings a great energy to both. Every moment she is on stage, it is clear she loves what she does.

Though the critical reception of Be More Chill has been dubious all along, it almost doesn’t matter. It is safe to say most critics do not fall into the target audience for the show – in fact, most are pretty far removed from their highschool days. It’s obvious from the Cinderella story that brought Be More Chill to the Broadway stage that it has value to the teenagers it was made for. The value of a show ought not to be in who the target audience is, but rather how well it reaches them, and this one clearly does exactly what it set out to do.

Be More Chill runs at the Academy Players through March 20. For tickets, visit academyplayersri.org or call the box office at 401-830-0880. Masks are required for all patrons.

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