One of the big problems with the Tony Awards, if you live in Los Angeles, is you don’t have a chance to see the shows that are getting the awards until they go on tour. Normally. Sometimes you luck out. Sometimes the show did its tryout in Los Angeles, as was the case with Ain’t Too Proud, which got added to this year’s Ahmanson season before it moved to Broadway. But otherwise? You’re out of luck.
But then, the universe smiles. A quantum computer somewhere lets a local high school get the rights to a show, and not to have lost those rights when the show is mounted on Broadway.
In this case, the lucky high school was the Arts Theatre and Entertainment School (ArTES) Magnet at the Cesar Chavez Learning Academy in San Fernando. The show was Be More Chill, which after the school got the rights moved to Broadway. The Broadway version has been nominated for a number of various awards, including a Tony for Joe Iconis for Best Original Score. So now you have the situation where this high school is presenting a show that is currently on Broadway (although the school’s version appears to be the original version, not the slightly modified off-Broadway moved-to-Broadway version, which added two songs). In other words: Los Angeles, you have one more chance (if I get this review posted early enough) to see a show that is currently on Broadway.
I should note, however, that this is a high school production. That means you have student actors, with untrained voices, and all the problems that happen in high school productions. When we saw the show, we had voices cracking and changing key, and occasionally being a little off. We had the occasional instrument out of tune. We had numerous sound problems. But this is a musical about high school kids, being done in a high school. One does not expect perfection — one expects kids doing the best with what they’ve got, with raw talent yet to be shaped. That’s what you’ll see here — and that’s what I’ll focus on. You don’t beat up kids for not being at the caliber of trained professionals. But do understand, going in, that this is a high school production.
Be More Chill tells the story of Jeremy — a dweeb, a loser, one of those kids in high school who is addicted to video games and never is successful with the girls. Someone, well, like I was in high school 😁, who would hang in the Math Lab. He likes to hang with his best friend Michael playing two player games. But he is also interested in this girl, Christine, who has no interest in him. The signs up for Play Production to be with her, but strikes out. During an encounter with the school bully later, he learns about this device that he can get called a SQUIP (“super quantum unit intel processor”) — a quantum computer that he can swallow, after activating it with Mountain Dew, that will implant in his brain and make him “cool and chill”. So he ends up taking it and becomes cool and chill. He gets the girls (although not the one he wants), and gets invited to the cool parties, but (of course) ignores his long time friend along the way. But anyone can tell you these things never end well. In order to give Jeremy what he wants, the SQUIP calculates it has to take overall humanity (or at least the school), and when some humans refuse… Let’s just say that lessons are learned and the good guys win, and the ultimate message is that it is better to be yourself, un-augmented, with all your fears and insecurities, then to be under the control of something else.
The show features music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, and a book by Joe Tracz, based on the 2004 novel of the same name by Ned Vizzini. It started as a production at a small theatre in New Jersey in 2015, and would have been forgotten except for a cast recording … that went viral. As you can see the message is one that will resonate with a high school and disaffected youth croud. It speaks to the kids with ADD and who are on the spectrum, who would rather interact on their phones than with people, for whom speaking to their sexual interests is scary. In other words, about 90% of teens and college kids. The popularity of the music spread, and spread like wildfire. This led to the production making its way to an off-Broadway production and eventually a move to Broadway. Reception there has been mixed. But having now seen this show, I don’t think the Broadway reception is going to make a difference. This is a show that will continue to resonate with the high school crowd, and with the added cachet of having been on Broadway, it will likely be popular on the high school circuit for years and years to come — especially as (having been designed for off-Broadway), it doesn’t require a lot in terms of set and staging, although you might need to rent a Theremin.
I’ve had the original album for about two years now, and loved the music from the show. Now that I’ve seen the show, the songs make a lot more sense. I’ll note that Joe Iconis tends to write very dark themes, and this show is no exception. If you’ve heard “Broadway, Here I Come” from Smash, you know his music … and if you listen closely, you know that song isn’t about someone going off to succeed on Broadway, but someone jumping off a building and landing on Broadway. Dark. Be More Chill is also dark, but in a different way. “The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire and He Burned Down The House)” is a great example of that.
As for the story itself: in some ways it is a bit derivative: there are loads of off-Broadway and even Broadway shows that deal with the problems and mean kids in high school, from Heathers to Mean Girls to Serial Killer Barbie to even Bring It On. Some are dark and some are light. What I think sets Be More Chill apart is its music and its solutions. Iconis’ music, when you start listening to it, is infectious. It has some quality that draws you to it, even with the warped message. Give me nerd love and all that jazz. There’s an energy and a style to the execution that makes Iconis standout, and hopefully Be More Chill will introduce him to more people and continue him on the path to long lasting success on Broadway. Secondly, this is not a musical where the kids are out to destroy the school or their enemies. The kids just want to be kids and fit in. They find something that they think will help them to do it. But it does -only at the beginning. Ultimately, they spread it to their friends, and it destroys their minds and makes them automatons. Were this the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s, one might think this was an analogy for pot or alcohol. But I think this is a different cautionary warning. I think it is a warning about our cell phones and electronic devices, and how they are controlling us and taking over our thinking, and how sometimes we just need to reject them and be ourselves. At least that’s how I read this message.
So — despite this being a high school production with the inherent flaws thereto — this is worth seeing. You’re likely not going to be able to see this show again until its been on Broadway for more than a year, a tour is organized, and it shows up at the Pantages or Ahmanson with high ticket prices. But you can see it (checks watch) tonight for $20. What a bargain, even if it is a high school production.
⚠ [Note: In the following, I’m only going to do my usual linking to the adults. These are kids in an arts magnet; they are unlikely to have professional pages.]
Under the direction of Mr. Mark Brodie, assisted by Jessica Sumuano, these students give their all. They don’t appear nervous (except as the roles dictate); they are believably their characters. They appear reasonably real and are fun to watch. In other words, they come across as good actors with lots of potential for the future. Under the choreography of Ms. Anne-Marie Osgood (FB), they move well. These aren’t fancy dance moves — these are high school kids without long-term dance training — but are believably high school and what you would expect from socially awkward kids. In other words, they fit. Vocally, there are more problems, but this is high school. Vocal Director Mr. Tim Borquez (FB) did a great job of teaching the kids to overcome fears, sing out loud and clear (even when amplification fails), and to be reasonably good with their voices. But as I’ve learned, few are blessed with perfect vocal talent from the start, and training the voice requires more than the few weeks one gets in a high school class. These kids did remarkably with the training that they had, and I was impressed with the product. Yes, I occasionally winced; but I also recognized this is high school. In other words: Earlier this week I judged the Jr. Mathematical Software panel at the California Science and Engineering Fair. These kids did remarkable projects, but they had flaws. But then again, they were 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. One took the difficulty for their age and experience into context. Same here. For the degree of difficultly of what these kids did, and the experience they had coming in, they did remarkably and are to be commended, even with their flaws. Those they will correct as they learn more. This was a celebration of their raw talent.
So let’s talk about that talent, shall we. Click here to see the Instagram story introducing the cast.
In the lead position, as Jeremy Heere, was Esteban Vasquez. Vasquez gave off the right nerd drive, and was believably Jeremy with all his insecurities and issues. He did a great job of capturing the change in character as the SQUIP took over his personality. His “love interest”, Joanna Garcia as Christine Caigula, captured the nervousness and awkwardness of Christine well.
Ricky Cardenas, as Michael Mell, Jeremy’s long time friend, was strong. He gets what might be the breakout number of this show, “Michael in the Bathroom”, and his performance in that number captured the sadness and loneliness of that character well.
As the SQUIP, Christina Izaguirre gave off a wonderful strength and confidence (as befits a quantum computer).
The triumvirate of gossiping girls and secondary love interests were strong: Charmen Orozco as Chloe, Lucy Vallin as Brooke, and Perla Rodriguez as Jenna Rolan. All captured their characters well, but my eye was particularly drawn to the performance of Vallin as Brooke. She brought a level of fun and playfulness to that character. Rodriguez was also startong as Jenna, particularly in the “Smartphone Hour” number in the second act.
Giovanni Luna gave off a suitable bully vibe as Rich in the opening; he was also fun to watch in the “Smartphone Hour” number. Michael Sanchez’s Jack Dillenger was a bit more timid in his character, but still worked reasonably well with Garcia’s Christine.
Rounding out the cast in smaller roles and as multiple/ensemble characters were Jackie Ibanez Madeline; Nichole Guitierrez Mrs. Reyes; and Brayan Velez Mr Heere. Of these, Velez is particularly noteworthy for his performance in “The Pants Song”.
So as not to single out problems, I’ll say broadly that girls in the cast had better control of pitch and tone than the boys, but that’s biology at that age. Consistently strong vocal performances included those of Perla Rodriguez, Joanna Garcia, Christina Izaguirre, and Lucy Vallin.
Music was provided by an off-stage pit orchestra under the direction of Scott Sutherland (FB) Music Director and Bass. Other members of the orchestra were: Weley Arai Keys 1; Noah Gulbransen Bari Sax, Tenor Sax, Soprano Recorder; Justin Vides Tenor Sax; Cody Tabamo Flute, Theremin, Alto Recorder; Justin Jones Trumpet, Flugelhorn, Flugaone; Diego Barahona Trumpet, Euphonium; Nathan Ortega Vocoder, Keys 2; Ruben Lopez Electric and Acoustic Guitar; and Andres Alcantar Percussion, Drums. In general, the orchestra was strong, modulo a flugelhorn that needed adjustment. The drums were a bit muffled, but that was an artifact more of how they were situated and exposed, as opposed to how they were played.
This brings us to the other production and creative aspects. The set design of Dr. John Ong was extremely simple: some wood boxes, some lockers that doubled as a blackboard. But this is theatre, and it worked well, What was more impressive was the laser design of Mr. Jesse Santos, working with laser operator Jade Drouaillet. Lasers were used to create most of the background — not just abstract designs, but words and pictures, with animation. Really nice job, with additional kudos to Mr. Noah Massey and the Digital Imaging Class. This was augmented by Yajayra Franco’s lighting design, which established mood well. Leslie Ruvalcaba’s costumes seemed reasonably high school, and Guadalupe Garcia’s properties were appropriate. The biggest problem was sound — which wasn’t the fault of sound designer Adrian Mier or sound mentor Mr. Tim Borquez (FB). Rather, there was loads of interference and static. This was likely a combination of students unaware of how movement impacts microphones, combined with audience members unaware of how their cell phones impact the Bluetooth used to communicate between the microphones and the sound system. People – when you attend live performance, phones off (or in airplane mode and silenced) and away. Other production credits: Andrew Brown Audio Consultant; Dr. John Ong Technical Director; Jessie Santos Asst. to the Technical Director; Yajayra Franco Stage Manager; Gianmarco Cardenas Lighting Board Operator; Justin Sumuano Asst. Lighting Board Operator; Leilani Escobedo & Victor Alvarez Spotlights; Lizeth Perez Sound Board Operator; Jasmine Velasquez Asst. Sound Board Operator; Ignacio Rodriguez Sound Effects; Lucy Vallin Program; Ms. Lourdes Enriquez Student Store.
There is one more performance of Be More Chill at ArTES/CCLA at 7:00 PM tonight. I have no idea when advance sales close; if they are available, you can find them here. Otherwise, tickets are available at the door and are $15 for adults ($20 for premium seating). ArTES is located at 1001 Arroyo St. Exit the 118 at Glenoaks, and go N towards San Fernando. R at Arroyo. The execution of this production isn’t perfect, but the kids have loads of spirit and raw talent, and it is your chance to hear a Tony-award nominated score before the Tonys.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Tonight brings Sister Act at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights (because we love the work of this theatre, and we want to see how a small theatre tackles this big show). The second weekend of May brings Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend of May brings The Universe (101) at The Main (FB) in Santa Clarita (we loved it at HFF18), as well as The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB). May closes with two concerts: Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes (FB) … and that’s not even the weekend. The last weekend of May will see me at Bronco Billy – The Musical at Skylight Theatre (FB).
June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). I’m just starting to wade through the list of 343 shows, but I already see some I want to see, including The Seven Year Itch, [title of show], and the return of Tabletop: The Musical. Right now, I’ve got about 30 shows in the schedule, so I expect to pair things down as I see ticket prices and the schedule shapes up. If you are producing or in a show and you want me to see it, now is the time to get me your information — especially any discount codes. I hope to post a preliminary schedule in the next week or so.
As for July, it is already filling up. Although the front of the month is currently open, July 20 brings Miss Saigon at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), followed by A Comedy of Errors from Shakespeare by the Sea (FB)/Little Fish Theatre (FB). The last weekend of July brings West Side Story at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). August starts with an alumni Shabbat at camp, and The Play That Goes Wrong at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.