Review - Be More Chill at The Other Palace
After the homegrown Everybody's Talking About Jamie and Broadway import Dear Evan Hansen, Be More Chill is another new musical about the growing pains and everyday terrors of high school students who are misfits and trying to either blend in or stand out from the crowd. (Broadway has also offered Mean Girls and The Prom, also set in high schools, the first of which has become an enduring hit but the second closed last summer).
But more than any of those shows, this one is not just a musical but a cultural and social media phenomenon whose following grew entirely organically online, after originally premiering in New Jersey in 2015. By the time it was revived in 2018 at Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre, the original cast album of its first production had been downloaded online some 150 million times; by the time the success of its Off-Broadway production had led to a Broadway transfer last year, that number was up to 250 million; and now, according to the programme for its London premiere, over 350 million people have already streamed it.
That should, of course, mean that the show should run forever. But the original Broadway production ran for just six months, playing a total of 30 previews and 177 performances after it opened in a theatre that seated some 922 people. Even at capacity, that meant it would play to a maximum audience of 190,000, considerably fewer than the millions who have downloaded it. But there's obviously a big difference between downloading an album and actually buying a theatre ticket (not least in terms of cost).
That is not, however, to underestimate its reach and impact on the audiences who can afford to see it. You only need to attend a regular performance, as I did at a sold-out matinee two days after its official press night, to see a regular audience of fans - many sporting merchandised clothing items of the show, with a huge line snaking through the foyer of people buying more of it - roaring with a sense of both approval and identification. The mother and teenage daughter sitting next to me had traveled to London especially from New York to see it again, as they had on Broadway.
All of which is a way of delaying the inevitable: what did I actually think of the show? You might actually think that a middle-aged critic's opinion is irrelevant, and you'd probably be right: this show isn't meant for me. Or for Ben Brantley, who in his review of the original Off-Broadway run of the show for the New York Times, reported on the decibel level of the shrieks of the youthful audience around him, and wrote: "Unfortunately, anyone for whom adolescence is a distant and unpleasant memory is unlikely to feel like screaming, not in ecstasy, anyway. Unlike the more nuanced Dear Evan Hansen and Spring Awakening - never mind Hamilton - Be More Chill seems like a members-only club for those caught in the hellish here-and-now of the middle teens... What’s happening onstage feels like a closed-circuit communion between young adults and performers portraying young adults. It’s a show that might have been assembled in the bedroom of one of its unhappy characters and then streamed to the world via YouTube."
I couldn't put it better myself, so I won't attempt to. Yet it's undeniably fascinating to observe, if ultimately exhausting, too. Unlike Dear Evan Hansen, which brings spectators of any age into its intimate drama of the experience of being an outsider, Be More Chill turned me into one myself. I felt like I was at a party I hadn't been invited to.
With its futuristic plot, which involves teenagers swallowing a mind-altering drug that brings them a more confident alter-ego (called the Squib) that only they can see who issues them instructions on how to challenge and channel their insecurities, it's like a hallucinogenic nightmare, made real in an extended second act sequence set at a Halloween party where the difference between what's real and what's being imagined is even more extreme. As the Squib develops plans to infiltrate the minds and bodies of more teenagers, it reminded me of another sci-fi fantasy musical Little Shop of Horrors and its intention to spread its tentacles, literally, over the entire world.
Joe Iconis' score, meanwhile, seems bland and repetitive, too, but the audience seems to know it so well already that it hardly matters. Stephen Brackett's cartoon production - with slick projections from Alex Basco Koch re-setting locations on Beowulf Boritt's set - is blessed with a genuinely committed cast who match their audience's enthusiasm to bring their 2D characters to 3D life, with particularly appealing performances from Scott Folan and Blake Patrick Anderson as best friends who become estranged but eventually find their way back to each other.
Any musical that speaks to the next generation so profoundly is to be welcomed. I can only recognise that it isn't for me, though it may be for you, especially if you're unlucky enough to still be a teenager. In which case, it might be reassuring to know that your teens don't last forever
Be More Chill tickets are available now.