Grapevine — The scrappy artists at Ohlook Performing Arts Center have been building a tradition of performing new musicals with youthful casts, and this time it is with a musical that is growing bigger every day.
Be More Chill sold out its run at the Pershing Square Signature Center on 42nd street before the show even officially opened (it’s playing there now). The music and lyrics are by composer and Broadway darling Joe Iconis with a book by Joe Tracz based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini. The cast recording, from its premiere production at Two Rivers Theater in New Jersey, is on its way to becoming a classic for musical lovers of a certain age range. This cast recording is the core of why this show has become a cult sensation. It has been streamed over 100 million times from streaming services, which places it in the realm of Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen and other Broadway hits. Fairly remarkable, given that the show has never even been to Broadway, let alone had the big marketing campaign of a Broadway show. This show spread by one obsessive musical fan telling another “You have to hear Be More Chill.”
Be More Chill tells the story of cute and nerdy teen Jeremy Heere trying to survive high school in an nondescript New Jersey suburb. Jeremey, played on opening night with suitable energy, quirkiness and verve by Dillon Savage, has only one friend—the adorable loser-stoner Michael Mell, played by Jordan Justice. Justin Rowe brings odd humor to the role of Rich, who convinces Jeremy to take the pill called a Squip, which sets the show in motion.
Most of the principal roles are rotated between a pair of actors with the exception of the adults, Jeremey’s hapless dad noted only as Mr. Heere and the stereotypically flamboyant drama teacher Mr. Reyes. The role of the Squip is also played by one actor, Alex Heika, who has the confidence and swagger to lead Jeremy on his journey to power but carries enough mystery to leave you guessing.
The orchestrations are by Charlie Rosen, an up-and-coming orchestrator and band leader. Look up “Charlie Rosen’s Broadway Big Band” on YouTube to see why his career is taking off. Be More Chill has a unique pop and electronica influenced score and, as far as I know, is the only show with dedicated musical parts for the Theremin and recorder. Sci-Fi fans and music geeks will know the Theremin as the odd sound from the theme to the original Star Trek and many science fiction movie scores.
The band at Ohlook is the Mountain Dew that keeps the cast nearly bouncing off the black walls of the space. Musical direction by Kelley Poche Rodriguez has the band and cast sounding good and lets the kids find pop culture riffs where the joke works while keeping the score tight and diction good so you can understand the clever vocals.
Jill Blalock Lord, who founded Ohlook and directed, keeps the frenetic pace of the show going and lets the kids have their moment in the spotlight to shine. This is not an Equity-level show at a grand theater. It is a bunch of talented kids at a black box in a strip mall off Northwest Highway in Grapevine. Be More Chill works beautifully stripped down to its essence. Its core is friendship and the insane stress of high school in the social media age. These difficulties lead Jeremy to make a Faustian bargain and take a pill with a super computer (a Squip) that implants in his brain to make him cool and help him get the girl of his dreams. All is made sweeter by her being the classic “theatre kid” played by Emma Lord; she belts, she cries, yet she is just as lost as Jeremy. She is only at home on the stage with a script and direction. Left to navigate the dating world of high school, she stammers too.
The heart of the show is the friendship between Jeremy and Michael. Michael, played by the beefy and rugged, Jordan Justice is at its best during the tearjerker “Michael in the Bathroom.” The fear, sadness, loneliness and angst are ripping him apart and he sings the song beautifully. It is a moment that could be overdone or cause one to indulge in showing off vocally. Here it’s just Michael on stage with a bathtub having his moment of intense pain, having been shunned by his only friend, having a break down and trying to make himself presentable enough to go home.
Needless to say, having a chip implanted in your brain to tell you what to do goes horribly wrong. Its leads to a giant party and a near-tragedy seen through the lens of social media. “The Smartphone Hour” is an amusing sendup of “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie with the addition of social media, tweets, texting and emoji. The Smiley Face, Lipstick, and Kitty Paw emojis make a great joke indicates how current and odd this show is. And with that, I won’t give away any more of the plot.
Some shows need massive sets with a flying tire, crashing chandelier or a helicopter. Be More Chill needs a bunch of energetic high school age kids, an assortment of retro T-shirts, simple props and a good band. Be More Chill is going to have a life for years—along with Heathers and Legally Blonde, similar to Little Shop of Horrors, Grease and other shows that have a big cast of high school age kids. Side note: if you are thinking of doing Grease, have your school try Be More Chill instead, if you can get the rights.
Even though the show is currently off-Broadway, the rights are currently available for regional companies. There is a very good chance this show will move to Broadway making the rights more difficult to obtain.
So make the effort to Chill out in Grapevine. It’s Faust meets Heathers and is a fun ride that will leave you with a few tunes stuck in your head for days.
» Joel Leggett has a BFA from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and spent his youth studying and performing at the Studio Theater and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.. He has been a Dallas native since the early '90s and is an IT Professional for a multinational bank. He spends his spare time singing karaoke and belting out tunes on Monday nights at the Balcony Club. He can also be found driving the side streets of Texas on his Royal Enfield motorcycle.