Jeffrey R Smith is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.
Be More Chill Performance Inspired Audience
If creativity is really the flower of the mind, then the rest of the body is just a flower pot and every community owes it to itself to be a garden. Just as a flower can spring up through a crack in a sidewalk, so too can a bourgeois community afford young minds an opportunity to blossom. It happened here in Alameda when the Tomorrow Youth Repertory found a crack in the pavement and performed Be More Chill at an assembly hall provided by the Trinity Lutheran Church.
Under the sterling directorship of Mallory Penney, a graduate of the Alameda Unified School District school system, 30 local singers, dancers and actors, all well under the age of 18, produced a musical that was both stunning and riveting.
This critic attended a dazzling performance and was accompanied by an experienced vocalist with 40 years of vocal training. My guest was certain that the entire cast of had received extensive professional vocal training. An over-the-top sound system, generously provided by Bert Blank and Jeff Annis, left no room for vocal error.
Annis, a sound engineer, who once worked the Concord Pavilion, flooded the assembly hall with rich, precision voices backed by a rock-solid band comprised of Tania Johnson, conductor and keyboard, Amar Khalsa on woodwinds and keyboard, Justin Smith on trumpet, theramin and recorder, Alex Farrell on bass and Tiena Elias on drums.
As any high school teacher will tell you, the title: Be More Chill usually translates into doing less homework and sending strong signals of general indifference and academic apathy. But this musical is not about slacking or dissing teachers; it is a musical amalgam of movies from the artificial intelligence genre wherein computers use machine learning to betray their well-intentioned, myopic, creators.
Like many self-aware adolescents, lead character Jeremy Heere, played by Miranda Massie, a high school junior, sees himself as a social outcast. Miss Massie deftly walks her character down the middle path: seemingly wretched, hopeless and helpless, but alas with enough strength of character to take action and suffer the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and to mobilize to “take arms against a sea of troubles.” Miranda would do well to audition for Hamlet.
Jeremy’s recently divorced, sans pants, father, Mister Heere, is an emotional basket case played wonderfully by Zoe Gilles. Zoe transitions her character from a self-pitying lamb chop to a roaring supportive father resolutely belting out “The Pants Song” in harmony with Michael, as played by Matthew Dean.
Dean’s Michael Mell is one of those friends who, while trying to cheer you up, coincidently pushes you closer to the emotional abyss; he assures Jeremy that “being a loser is OK.” Dean masterfully carves out a complex character that is buoyantly resigned to the lowest echelons of the high school hierarchy and emotionally supportive even while he bludgeons his friends with the truth.
Hazel Purins does an amazing job with the character Christine Canigula. She occupied the epicenter between confessing her love interest to Jeremy, being coy and waiting for Jeremy take charge of his life.
Jeremy is bullied by popular student Rich Goranski. Rich is played nefariously well by Sylvia Annis. Jeremy and Christie are brought into proximity rehearsing for a school play: a post-apocalyptic futuristic, “Midsummer Nightmare” about zombies. These zombies have quantum computers augmenting the brains of students who feel socially insufficient without the guiding voice of the SQUIP.
Emilia Arneson plays the tyrannical SQUIP with dictatorial force; the character she creates is so compelling, and has such stage presence, that Emilia earns a spontaneous applause when she initially appears on stage in the guise of Keanu Reeves: she is scary!
Without issuing a spoiler alert, let us say that many CHILL students opt for the SQUIP, preferring artificial CHILL and popularity over authenticity and autonomy.
Like most scripts involving teenagers, things have to get really out of hand before they get better and adults can never be part of the resolution. Eventually every major character is faced with a choice of “the red pill” or “the blue pill.” The only difference is, in Chill it is the green Mountain Dew or the red Mountain Dew.
Great staging, amazing acting, wonderful singing and superb music are what any cultivated community should be about; as the expression goes, “Alameda’s got talent.” Perhaps one day Alameda, depending on its priorities, will have a municipal performing arts center to match its remarkable artistic culture.
In the meantime we should be grateful that there is Tomorrow Youth Repertory — a wonderful troupe of dedicated thespians — strutting and fretting upon the stage of the Trinity Lutheran Church.