By Matthew Pritchard
I went into Penrith Musical Comedy Company’s production of Be More Chill (Directed by Matt Taylor) not knowing the source material, only knowing that it was positioning itself as Dear Evan Hanson by way of Little Shop of Horror. Which I was pretty happy about. I love musicals, I love teen movies, I love horror and sci-fi, and I love both of those shows.
So, stop me if you’ve heard this one: our protagonist, Jeremy (Timothy Drummond), is a high school nerd who just wants to get by and survive the horrors of high school and teenage years. And hey, if things go well with his crush Christine (Madeline Ryan), well so much the better. Okay, So far, so relatable. This all changes when Jeremy’s offered a mysterious drug/computer (just roll with it) called a SQUIP that implants an artificial intelligence (Josh Kobeck) in his brain that will take control of his life and make things better. But can the SQUIP be fully trusted?
I mean, look. We’ve all seen Little Shop of Horrors, right? It’s never a secret to us the answer is “no”, but getting to that “no” is the fun part, right?
And fun seems to be a big part of the rationale here. There are moments where the cast is clearly having a blast and there are some character moments - especially earlier moments between Jeremy and his best friend Michael (Jack Maidment) - that genuinely feel like two close friends just palling about. It’s in moments like those where Be More Chill shines.
The staging is relatively simple, large, rectangular blocks are painted with backgrounds and wheeled around the stage as needed, the band is placed behind them on stage. This led to a few problems, however. Now don’t get me wrong, the band is excellent, but their positioning on stage, coupled with what sounded to me like problems with the cast’s mics, meant that there were songs where I couldn’t hear the lyrics or the quieter, more understated vocals, which was a shame because there are clearly some very talented vocalists in the cast.
As well as the issues with volume, there were a few other technical gremlins. There were moments where lighting cues and cast members didn’t line up, or ended up obscured through positioning errors. There were also moments of full cast choreography that not only felt a bit too busy for the space, but also made it look like the cast were crammed into too small an area, throwing off timing and choreography. There were a few scenes where I wasn’t sure where to look, there was so much movement happening in such a little area. This became more of a problem during quiet character scenes where background action kept catching my eye and pulling me away from the story.
That said, when it worked, it worked really nicely. There’s a moment in particular after Jeremy abandons Michael at a Halloween party - The song ‘Michael in the bathroom’ where he reflects on losing his friend as people bang on the door of the bathroom where he is hiding, is staged in such a way that the walls literally close in on him, forming a fun visual metaphor.
The thing is, a lot of my major gripes with Be More Chill come from the source material and the writing of the show itself.
Jeremy goes through the standard “zero to hero” teen movie plot beats. He gets too cool for his loser friend, he dates a popular girl but seemingly only does so to further him towards his ultimate goal of dating Christine, his crush from the get-go. The beats are familiar, but for fans of this genre, they’re what we want, right? They’re like a comfortable armchair we know we can sink into and enjoy.
And yet, something feels off about Jeremy’s story.
Not because of Drummond’s performance, mind you. He approaches the role with an intense, almost cartoon-like energy. His rubbery movements make for some enjoyable moments of physical comedy (the scene where Jeremy’s SQUIP first activates is especially good). Not to mention his skills at belting out those big numbers.
Without giving away too much of what happens, it feels like a bunch of resolutions aren’t earned. My guess is that this is from an overload of characters and side plots that, in a novel, can be accommodated and explored in-depth, but need to be trimmed for a stage show or a movie, leaving them feeling undercooked. But the biggest issue is the shadow the show is standing in. It has enjoyable moments, but it’s hard not to feel like Be More Chill is late to the anxious, introverted teen party.
All of that being said, in his director’s note, Taylor notes Be More Chill’s origins as a scrappy underdog, “the little show that could.” And this energy is certainly in PMCC’s production. There’s an admirable earnestness on display that revels in the frenetic mish-mash of pop-culture references and teen movie tropes, and it’s in moments where that passion and energy shines through that Be more Chill is at it’s most enjoyable.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.