by ERIKA SASSEVILLE and SARAH PETREA SCHULTZ
“C-c-c-come on, c-c-c-come on” and check out Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s production of Be More Chill at the Illusion Theater on Hennepin Ave in Minneapolis. Based on the novel by Ned Vizzini with Music and Lyrics by Joe Iconis and Book by Joe Tracz, MMT’s production of Be More Chill brilliantly portrays an accessible and authentic modern teenage experience. The musical premiered on Broadway this February and has already become a hit, especially among teens and young adults.
Be More Chill centers around Jeremy Heere (Maxwell Emmett Ward) who suffers through a common high school experience: he is uncool, alternately mocked and ignored by the popular crowd, and unnoticed by his crush, Christine (Caitlin Featherstone). Jeremy is supported by his best friend Michael (Jim Belden) and a dad with a proclivity for pantsless-ness (Christian Unser). Things begin to change for Jeremy after cool kid, Rich (Nick Manthe) encourages him to get a SQUIP (Mike Tober) – a “super quantum unit intel processor.” Nesting inside his brain, this supercomputer coaches Jeremy in the art of cool. The SQUIP comes with some unexpected side-effects that throw Jeremy’s life out of whack and end up hurting those closest to him.
Maxwell Emmett Ward as Jeremy is exactly the nervous nerd that you knew (or were) in high school. He plays an undeniably authentic underdog-turned-popular guy, an oft-seen trope that finds new life in this production. A fan of the book long before it hit the stage, Ward imbues each line with honest and hysterical character choices. Every reaction and movement has a personality-driven purpose, creating an instantly relatable teen.
The entire cast worked beautifully together, the production was truly an ensemble piece. One particularly effective moment of staging by Director Sara Pillatzki-Warseha took place during Jeremy’s first play rehearsal. Christine is professing her love for the theater, and Jeremy thinks she’s about to profess her love for him as well. As the excitement between the teens builds, ensemble members shift from their dancing to tilt Christine and Jeremy’s chairs up and toward each other, nearly bringing their faces to touch. Christine reveals the name of the boy she could “kinda be into,” Jake (Matthew Hall), and the chairs sink back to the floor. This choreography exquisitely illustrated the turbulence of teenage love.
Director Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha spoke to us about the show, and emphasized her wish that the cast be as close in age (and personality) to the characters as possible. Her goal was to create an authentic high school experience on stage with a cast of young people, most of whom are new to the professional theatre scene. She said that with the state of mental health among young people, she felt that it was important to show the world what it’s like to be a teen in the 21st century. In addition to the casting, Pillatzki-Warzeha thought it was important for the audience to see what’s actually cool to actual young people. Everything from the costumes the actors wear to their choreography reflect how high schoolers get through life.
Actors Maxwell Emmett Ward (Jeremy), Caitlin Featherstone (Christine), and Jordyn KarlyAna Catanach (Brooke) all confirmed this effort. Each of them expressed to us how much of their teenage-selves they channeled into their performances. They all accessed the awkwardness of being uncool, the intensity of high school emotion, the experience of being a Theatre Kid, and the complicated decisions teens make while they are trying to discover who they truly are.
The Be More Chill cast infuses each character with dimension, completely avoiding stereotypes and played out tropes. Good kids let you down, bullies tug at your heartstrings, stoners seize the day. By the end of the show, you will want to attend each of these kid’s grad parties. This production only has four more more performances (April 20th, 26th-28th), so put on some pants and go visit them before the end of their run.
Production Staff: Director – Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha, Music Director – Anna Murphy, Choreographer – Abbi Fern, Stage Manager – Miranda Shunkwiler, Co-Producer – Mark Lyons, Assistant Stage Manager – Samantha Fairchild, Costume Designer – Mandy Parmeter, Lighting Designer – Grace Barnstead, Sound Designer – Abe Gabor, Scenic Designer/TD – Robin McIntyre, Prop Designer – Joe Hendren, Fight Coordinator – Greg Parmeter, Lighting Assistant – Jake Otto, Scenic Carpenter – Micah Haworth