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Review: With ‘Be More Chill,’ Selma Arts Center finds a way to become even more popular

THEATER REVIEW

If, in your sticky-stinky funk, you’re looking for someone to blame for the string of triple-digit temperatures this week, you could pick a good scapegoat in the Selma Arts Center. The on-fire theater company scheduled its “Be More Chill” — a smartly staged and often exuberant production that continues through Saturday, July 27 — for the time of year when blast furnaces and the ambient air temperature are hard to differentiate in the Valley. Of course there’s going to be a heat wave when you open a title like that. The weather gods wouldn’t settle for anything less.

Thank goodness for air conditioning.

Pictured above: Ian Jones, left, and Joshua Plowman in ‘Be More Chill.’ Photo: Selma Arts Center

Besides, anyone under 30 and into viral-hit Broadway offerings already knows that in this case, “Chill” isn’t connected to coldness. It’s all about being popular, as our “Wicked” friend Galinda would trill. Stripped to its essentials, “Be More Chill” goes where so many novels, films and musicals have gone before: Use the steamy, pressure-cooker, often hellish social environment of high school as a stand-in for the way that humans have interacted ever since, well, that one caveman invited three dudes to go hunting with him and left the other guys to pick berries. We are an intensely communal species keenly wired to pick up social cues; if you’re “in,” you might get to sleep inside the cave when it rains or get picked for the cheerleading squad, and if you’re “out,” you might, um, starve. Or spend Saturday night flipping through Instagram.

I appreciate and often adore the High School As Life Allegory genre. (“Heathers,” anyone? How very.) I also know that timing can mean everything in terms of one’s appreciation for a specific example of his genre. I bonded with “Heathers” when I was in my 20s, and I can see the same generational thing happening for today’s crop of young people when it comes to “Be More Chill.”

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For me, however, the show (with music and lyrics by Joe Iconis and book by Joe Tracz) is just OK. I like the Faustian premise, which, as the show’s website notes, is like a cross between “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” An achingly unpopular guy gets the opportunity to rise far beyond what his mediocre social standing by artificial (and perhaps nefarious) means. But with popularity comes risks — and costs. Would he rather be cool or himself?

Yet while there is much to like — and adore, even — in director Miguel Gastelum’s concept and execution of the Selma show, this is one of those cases when I think the production itself is better than the source material.


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Still, the top-notch singing, staging and production design, which are the three strengths of this production, turn it into a not-to-miss experience.

Let’s talk about that singing. There isn’t a weak voice in the bunch. It’s one thing to hear Ian Jones, a musical-theater veteran I’ve heard many times before, come through with a sterling tenor in the leading role of Jeremy, the pathetically dorked-out teen at the bottom of the social food chain. (Jones offers an inspired rendition of the opening song, “More than Survive,” and never falls from that lofty vocal perch.) And Joshua Plowman, another familiar voice to me, sounds very good as Michael, the best friend. But at the opening-weekend performance I attended, I was delighted and surprised with voices with whom I wasn’t as familiar, such as Teya Juarez (who plays Christine, the girl on whom Jeremy has a crush), Gio Adaoag (Rich, who introduces Jeremy to the dark side of popularity) and Jessica Meredith (Jenna, the “town” gossip).

And then there’s Sean Hopper’s booming Selma Arts Center debut as The SQUIP, a personification of the supercomputer that Jeremy willingly embeds in his brain. Hopper, who channels Keanu Reeves, finds a brusque, goofy, potent presence in the role, and he sounds great. Randy Kohlruss, who plays Jeremy’s father and a bunch of other adult characters, puts his physical-comedy talents to good use.


Related story: On a very hot weekend, Selma Arts Center offers a highly anticipated ‘Chill’

Aaron Lowe’s scenic design, Dominic Grijalva’s projection design and Regina Harris’ lighting design work very well together. The projections and lights deliver a frenetic, swirling, digital-style blowout that enhances the show’s sci-fi plot points while alternating with effective and more staid settings, including interiors of a theater and shopping mall. I really can’t say enough good things about the projections in “Be More Chill.” They’re superb. They’re like a cross between hieroglyphics and a hard drive circuit board. The technology and creativity on display at Selma and at Roger Rocka’s the past few shows have been getting better by leaps and bounds. (I feel like there’s almost an arms race between the two companies.)

Also quite fine: Connor Barton’s choreography and Heather Sisk’s costumes. Adrian Oceguera’s sound design really pays off in terms of being able to hear the actors over the music. (The fine live pit band, conducted by Frank Velasco, adds texture to the experience.)

So what don’t I like about the play itself? The second act in particular starts to feel flabby and overdone. That’s often the case with the high-school-as-life trope. When the sugar rush starts to wear off — all those early moments of hilarity setting up the agony of the social structure, and then the moments of triumph when the transformed ugly duckling starts to rule with swan-like ease — you’ll find that often black comedies such as these often struggle with how to wrap things up without becoming too outrageous.

Selma Arts Center

There are many aspects of Gastelum’s direction that I like, from the tiny moments (Jeremy tosses away the pen he uses to sign up for the school play) to the large (the song “Two-Player Game” is wonderfully staged). But I’m disappointed in the brashness and bigness of some of the performances. In particular, Marissa Brandon’s Chloe and Emma Raymond’s Brooke are caricatures. They play the popular girls, and, yes, the script calls for them to be bluntly sexual, but the unrelenting, hypersexualized way they move and interact on stage can feel tawdry and not very interesting, character-wise. Some of the other characters fall prey to moments that are too-big-for-the-room and over-the-top as well, but Chloe and Brooke feel exaggerated for cheap laughs.

Still, I write my overall impression of the show acknowledging my generational perspective and the notable success of its music and stagecraft. (I say this while offering a slight old-fogey complaint about the loudness of the music; cumulative ear damage is a real thing.) At one point near the end, Jones starts dancing with the style and aplomb of someone who reigns as supremely chill, even in just his little corner of the world, and you realize that the whole dweeb act was just that — an act. How cool is that? He and the rest of this talented cast and production team manage to bring the temperature down a few degrees. As the rest of us broil, for that we can be thankful.

Also: I love the new bleacher seating. Selma Arts Center, you just took a step up in the world.


Show info

‘Be More Chill,’ a Selma Arts Center production. Runs through July 27. $21 general, $19 students and seniors, $17 children.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (2)

  • Steph

    Hah!

    Something I like/caught: In my email text preview of this review, the line is “Or spend Saturday night in a chat room.”

    When I click through to the full review, Donald, you, too, must have wanted to be more chill because the line is changed to “Or spend Saturday night flipping through Instagram.”

    Caught!

    PS—I really hope to get to this show. Even as a fellow ‘mature fogey’ I’m looking forward to seeing such great talent on stage.

    reply

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