Of all of my life regrets, one of the most prominent was that I didn’t get into theatre/musicals until I was 16-ish…and beyond that, it wasn’t until I was 20/21 when I started seeing the full gamut of shows.
It wasn’t that I didn’t moderately enjoy the occasional high-kicking chorus or the visual splendor of The Lion King…but I was about ten or eleven seeing the revivals of The Sound of Music and Jesus Christ Superstar and I had no clue what was going on in either show (and in the case of the latter, I still don’t claim to understand the show in its entirety...at the age of 25). In part, I was seeing the wrong shows, but understanding, let alone relating to, mostly adult characters and their mostly adult conflicts in a majority of musicals was not on my menu.
Everything changed for me in High School. From playing Benvolio in a production of Romeo and Juliet to seeing the ‘right’ musicals - like West Side Story, Rent or even the film adaptation of Chicago - was the start of an eye-opening journey into theatre. Great scores and great stories that I can actually follow fresh out of adolescence and emotional arcs to see all-the-way through. Spring Awakening followed shortly-thereafter and that was life-changing for finally - FINALLY - depicting characters in a story that I know of personally, if not, truly evoke me on stage. Melchior’s skepticism or Moritz’s plight, amongst other things, were all the more palpable (and subsequently, amazing) to follow having had the experience to match.
Those personal moments - and musicals depicting complex characters and relatable situations for the under-30 crowd - are still outliers to me, which are the ultimate euphoria I chase when I enter the theatre. Theatre’s median age is (still) over 40 and that is where the money and interest is at, so we are due for more Gershwin retreads and the like (ugh). So be it, I guess…my peers and I are bearing this burden that most theatre does not and will not actively try to appeal to us until we are two decades older (at least).
Why the long story? Because I was thinking about the big picture this past weekend after having a mind-blowing moment at Be More Chill, a new musical adapted from Ned Vizzini’s book of the same name, running at the Two River Theater until June 28th (New Jersey road trip, y’all!). The outcast lead Jeremy (back before nerd culture was mainstream) is playing video games with his best friend Michael and they perform a full-on number about being a team playing video games and defeating the bad guys and stuffs.
But…but…but…THAT WAS ME AT AGES 11 THRU 16, YOU GUYS…
Seriously, I tweeted out at intermission that I wish this show was around when I was an angst-filled, video gamer. I spent many nights and weekends alone playing with my pals, the Super Mario Brothers amongst others, because I was unpopular and had no friends. If I could, I would gift-wrap this musical number to my younger self with a note saying, “here you go kid, you’re not alone…there are others out there that know how you feel.” Because that was how AMAZING and powerful the song was, so much so, I was a little teary-eyed when it ended and my age hasn’t started with a ‘one' in a lot of fucking years. Had I saw this impeccably composed, directed, choreographed and performed number, I would of had my, "this is the power of live theatre” revelation several years earlier then I did, thus kick-starting a prevalent passion in my life and sending me off to AskJeeves.com (that was the Google of my early 2000’s) to see what other musicals I might like and what is running on Broadway that I cannot afford! Because rush policies weren’t commonplace yet!
Alas, I don’t have a Tardis or the power to time travel (yet), so I digress...
Of course, for a new show debuting in New Jersey, Be More Chill is not infallible. The book - about Jeremy taking a super computer in pill form, spawning a controlling and all-knowing being in his head - and score are a little wonky in some places, but I love this show so hard, I already have a ticket purchased for later in its run…don’t test me, I have the receipt to prove it.
It’s refreshing that a young creative team was given the reins in adapting this show, because we don’t need a bunch of old folk and their unrealistic perspectives about high school and teen behavior to tell the younger, target audience what life is like (no really, the youths and I in the audience laughed and applauded the loudest at the funny lines and numbers). Joe Tracz’s book captures an accurate portrait of a modern day high-school without requiring a second glance.
Joe Iconis’ score isn’t a top-40 rehash or some, like, K-pop junk rendered with a full orchestra. But it does sound interesting (Fun Fact: some of Iconis’ inspiration for the score was John Carpenter) and modern, with at least half of the score triumphing. The first number, an introduction to Jeremy and an ode to outsiders with ambition, is a stunning opener, setting the story on the right track from the get-go. Then, a few songs later, the aforementioned video game number, called “Two Player Game,” SLAYED me and I was hooked to the show. There’s even a ridiculous, fun song told through texts/tweets and one about pants…hey, why not!
Iconis’ score is met with energetic direction by Stephen Brackett. Even when scenes are transitioning or nothing is happening, you feel like something must be going on because the pace feels ultra-fast. Overall, the show runs the risk of being overwhelming - eye-searing lighting, loud costuming, sound effects, Chase Brock’s epic choreography (made even more badass by Gerard Canonico, moving at light-speed and dancing like a mofo) - but I wouldn’t consider that a bad thing. Besides, the young and talented cast is on-hand and going all out…hashtag “Here For It", of course.
Will Connolly’s performance is just about perfect as he navigate’s Jeremy’s roller coaster journey. From sheepish and awkward outsider, to ‘chill’ and confident popular person (and back and forth), you can gauge how Jeremy is feeling by looking at Will’s posture and tics (costuming, dialogue and songs aside). It’s a detailed portrayal that avoids lapsing into cliche, and more importantly, Connelly makes Jeremy an easy guy to root for, even during his darker, crazier moments. Like a nerdier, younger Stark Sands…a doubly fitting comparison because Will’s singing voice is pretty stellar. Those. High. Notes. Woah.
Here’s another relevant PSA for you…George Salazar is so fucking awesome in Be More Chill, I’m legitimately upset he wasn’t Tony eligible sunday night (one day maybe?!). Michael is a crowd-pleasing character in itself, but Salazar has his laid-back, retro-cool, loyal best friend vibe in spades.
His solo number though…Oh. My. Audra.
Early on during the second act, Salazar starts singing an occasionally funny, bust mostly devastating and lyrically-flawless ballad about hiding in a bathroom at the cool kidz party (if you have ever been that person like I have, be warned…ALL THE FEELZ!) and proceeds to belt his ass off, probably sinking Atlantic City in the process. Like, for all the reasons that I want a cast recording or a video recording (you hear me theatreverse?!), this number is my favorite one that needs note-for-note documentation. I always knew George had a VOICE in all caps, and in Be More Chill...et voila! VOICE. Lots of it. Putting it to good use. As he should. Attaboy, G!
In short, I have a new developing show to follow for the next couple of years because this short run at the Two Rivers Theater just can’t be the end of the line…there are thousands of independent, isolated youths that need to discover the awesomeness of Be More Chill and live-theatre in general. Like, this musical seriously needs more presence for the world’s sake. Literally, the world. I’m not being hyperbolic here.
Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson