Be More Chill opened on Broadway in March this year, closing in August after just 177 performances. Fresh off Broadway, St Hilda’s College, under the direction of Bebe Berryman and Ryan McAllery, have brought the show to the Union House Theatre for Melbourne audiences to enjoy. Evoking a modernised Little Shop of Horrors, Be More Chill tells the tale of Jeremy Heere, a quintessentially unpopular high schooler, who takes a mysterious pill “from Japan” in a bid to become popular and win over Christine Canigula. The pill contains a supercomputer personal assistant who takes residence in Jeremy’s brain: the Squip. The Squip helps Jeremy along his journey towards popularity, but of course it’s never that easy.
At the centre of St Hilda’s production are Endrico Botha and Breanna Stuart, playing Jeremy and Christine respectively. Jeremy is a vocally challenging role, requiring an impressive upper range, but Botha gets up there. He is appropriately vulnerable hitting the high notes, as Jeremy’s insecurities are laid bare for the audience to see and relate to.
Stuart gives a powerful performance as Christine, in turn both confident and exposed, musically conveying the character’s emotional turmoil. Stuart has a beautiful voice, her American accent is strong and her rapport with Botha is tender and believable.
St Hilda’s Be More Chill makes effective use of its large cast, with Paris Day and Charlotte Barton choreographing eye-catching ensemble routines for ‘More Than Survive’ and ‘The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire)’. These all action numbers establish the chaos that is high school, and Botha’s Jeremy is frequently set in isolation against scores of dancing students, with the lead exclaiming “I just wanna survive!”
The most polished performance of the night comes from Bailey Montgomerie, playing the “super quantum unit intel processor” aka the Squip. Montgomerie has a wonderfully rich voice, first showcased in ‘Be More Chill’, and he cuts a suave figure strutting about the stage in his suit and tie, flanked by his Squipettes (played by Harrison Neville, Ruby McAllan and Pasha Hanifa). As the Squip, Montgomerie reminds me of Neil Patrick Harris, self confidence personified with a trademark smirk. Heck, the two even look similar!
Projected backdrops, designed by Ciara Hadley, efficiently set the scene. In particular the projection for ‘The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire)’ is superb, as text messages and snaps (featuring cast members) fly across the screen, heightening the drama and clearly illustrating the wildfire that is social media.
The decision to have crew members move set pieces during scenes (amidst the actors) is less successful, as it interrupts the suspension of disbelief, detracting from the action.
Music Directors Eamonn Shorter and Alex Gorbatov do well with their small band. Each musician’s part is exposed, but they combine well under pressure to deliver the sci-fi influenced score, with its technological sounds as well as moments of pure pop and rock. ‘A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into’ kicks into top rock gear and the guitarists and drummer get their deserved moment in the sun, shredding along to Stuart’s punchy vocals.
Gabbi MacKechnie, playing Michael Mell, sings perhaps the young show’s most well-known number; ‘Michael in the Bathroom’. Despite her robust voice, the song understandably does not always sit in a comfortable range for MacKechnie, but she delivers pathos in spades as Michael dramatically laments his lot in life. MacKechnie’s acting is enthusiastic across the show, ensuring Michael’s positivity juxtaposes Botha’s generally more pessimistic Jeremy.
Henry Jones injects humour as Jeremy’s Dad, laconically strutting about with his pants off. ‘The Pants Song’ allows Jones to entertainingly dance through and overcome his character’s issues, in both the clothing and life departments. Day and Barton’s choreography combines with the costume department’s array of loud pants to ensure an amusing spectacle, and Jones brings a suitable irreverence to his paternal role, with just the right dose of emotion.
St Hilda’s Be More Chill is not the tightest production, nor is it blessed by an abundance of gifted singers, but the performers are committed and put together a hearty show. The hard work put in by the cast, band and production team is evident, paying off most rewardingly in the highly collaborative ensemble numbers. St Hilda’s performance highlights the value of teamwork, after all (as Jeremy and Michael might say) life is a ‘Two-Player Game’.
St Hilda’s Theatre Group’s production of Be More Chill ran from 6 – 7 September at The Union Theatre.