Penrith Musical Comedy Company’s latest offering is, on the whole, quite impressive.
From low-key New Jersey’s theatre scene to achieving cult-like fame on the internet to a revamped Broadway premiere and Tony nomination, Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz’s Be More Chill’s latest stop is in Penrith’s Joan Sutherland theatre. Director Matt Taylor and the Penrith Musical Comedy Company take you back to your awkward, overdramatic high school years with two hours of weird, fun and catchy songs that you’ll be humming for days afterwards.
Taylor’s vision is Be More Chill at its best: a modern high school musical that’s completely over the top and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Critically, he recognizes why the play has struck a chord in so many people – Be More Chill doesn’t shy away from depicting flawed characters and dark humor (after all, we all know high schoolers have no morals) but balances the little bit of tragedy we all know with a whole lot of comedy and charming feel-good moments that leave you a little bit nostalgic. Add in its wildly wacky sci-fi plot, pop culture references, and an absolutely banging band led by musical director Curtis Stuart, and what’s not to like?
Both the main and supporting cast of PMCC make the play authentically engaging, and the opening number “More Than Survive”, sung by Timothy Drummond (as Jeremy Heere) with choreography by Rob Thompson, makes a striking beginning to a memorable show. Drummond’s portrayal of the insecure Jeremy’s transformation as he acquires his SQUIP (a supercomputer that masterfully analyses social situations, portrayed by Josh Kobeck), as well as his struggles to impress his crush Christine Canigula (Madeline Ryan), make him a likeable character even at his worst moments. And any Jeremy Heere needs his supporting Michael Mell (Jack Maidment), who steals your gaze every time he’s on stage with a performance that establishes why Michael is possibly the most beloved character in the show.
The ensemble is almost constantly active, engaged in scattered conversations and movements that brings the musical to life. In Maidment’s solo piece “Michael in the Bathroom” we can see a group of girls partying just beyond the wall, and a boy trying out pickup lines on the other side. Taylor uses these little moments, along with creative use of set pieces, to amplify Michael’s feelings of isolation and reward you for your attention. Whilst having such constant action on stage runs the risk of being distracting, Taylor chooses these moments tactfully enough that it never feels overwhelming.
The musical unfortunately runs into a stumbling block when it comes to sound design (by Loud & Clear). Too often are we struggling to hear Drummond or Ryan clearly along with the band – the volume mixing seems a little unbalanced. Moreover, scene changes appear inconsistent, with most happening smoothly as the cast moves around set pieces and a few leaving you sitting in the darkness just a little too long. These setbacks are obvious enough to be noticed, but don’t impact your overall enjoyment of the musical.
Overall, Be More Chill is a musical full of heart. An impressive performance from all cast and ensemble members brings Iconis and Tracz’s invention into its full wacky, ironic glory. At its end, you’ll leave the theatre fondly reminiscent of your own teenage dramas – but most of all, relieved that you’ll never have to go back to high school.