Based on Ned Vizzini’s 2004 novel of the same name, it is difficult to watch the musical adaptation without the added poignancy wrought from the knowledge that Vizzini took his own life at the age of thirty-two. He was aware that the musical was being produced – indeed even excited at the prospect. Writer Joe Tracz and composer and lyricist, Joe Iconis, had just finished the first draft when they learned about the author’s death. Sadly, he hadn’t yet heard any of the music, much of which represents Vizzini’s personal struggles.
It’s hard to know how much of the innate sorrow washes over the audience’s head. “Be More Chill” is unquestionably aimed at the younger demographic, and one hopes that it speaks to them more directly than the whoops and cheers that accompany the action suggests. There is a superficiality that belies the subtext and, whilst you cannot ignore the sheer entertainment value of the production, it would be a shame to belittle the significance. As a (slightly) older member of the audience I try to put myself in a younger pair of shoes. Yes, I can argue that there’s nothing ground breakingly new here, but the freshness of Iconis’ music and lyrics, with Tracz’s book pull you in to the story; a pull made more forceful by the strength of the performances.
Stephen Brackett’s production focuses on two high school characters doing their best to try to fit in: Jeremy; who is on a quest to find acceptance, initially with a self-absorbed disregard of anything or anybody else (cue the scope for redemption), and Michael who is more accepting of his oddball status. Jeremy is persuaded to try a new pill called SQUIP (Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor) which imports a supercomputer into the brain and instructs him how to achieve the self-confidence he needs. It is a short cut to the popularity he dreams of but, being a heavy-handed metaphor, comes with the predictable downfalls. Michael is sceptical. What follows is a weird and sometimes wonderful storyline that is a mixture of high school musical and sci-fi fantasy.
Scott Folan’s Jeremy is a perfect mix of charm and angst, susceptibility and awareness. The standout is Blake Patrick Anderson as Michael. The audience cannot fail to be gripped by his show stealing performance, particularly during the most recognisable number, ‘Michael in the Bathroom’. Yet each cast member shines in their own way. Stewart Clarke as the personification of ‘Squip’: an intended pastiche and homage to Keanu Reeves in ‘The Matrix’. Miracle Chance illuminates the stage as love interest, Christine, while Christopher Fry delights as Jeremy’s father – trouser-less but nevertheless still ‘wearing the pants’.
The characters are brought further to life by Alex Basco Koch’s video projections which hypnotically convey the altered states of their minds. There are moments when the narrative steers a bit too close to confusion, but the actors pull it back and through song refocus on the heart of the matter. It’s a show of extremes; of suffering and joy, the agony and ecstasy. It’s initial run Off-Broadway failed to ignite its audience, and it simmered silently for a couple of years. Through word of mouth and YouTube clips the soundtrack eventually hit the charts and a cult phenomenon was born. Paradoxically you can understand both receptions. It is an undeniably addictive show, although I can see why some might want to resist it. But if you can cast aside reservations and learn to ‘be more chill’ it is well worth the ‘trip’.
“The ingredients, the writing, the musicality and the star-studded cast promise something to be respected and admired. But there is a definite sense of disappointment.”
‘Disenchanted’ (dɪsɪnˈtʃɑːntɪd/): disappointed by someone or something previously respected or admired; disillusioned. Synonyms include; let down, fed up, cynical, disabused. There is no question as to who the ‘someone or something’ singled out in Dennis T. Giacino’s “Disenchanted! A New Musical Comedy” is, and its subversive twist on the Disney fairy tale marketing machine, if not new, is a delight to watch. The swipes at the established misogynism, racism and many other ‘isms’ inbuilt into the portrayal of our favourite princesses are much needed, and Giacino has dressed them in pastiche melodies and some ingeniously clever and witty lyrics. It could do with perhaps more subtlety and less preachiness and bitterness, but the energy and gung-ho feistiness of all involved will appeal to all genders and persuasions.
That’s the good news. Unfortunately, some artistic decisions for this current digital revival make for awkward viewing, for the wrong reasons. ‘Digital’ is the key word. This is inherently a musical that needs to be witnessed live, in the flesh, a few sheets to the wind, in like-minded company. We, the audience, are being heckled and cajoled by these comic geniuses and we should be simultaneously shamed and charmed. It is cabaret at its finest. We should be ‘loving it!’. But, rather than challenging preconceptions, this version challenges our patience.
In the original Off-Broadway run in 2014 there is a wonderful moment midway through – a gorgeous swipe at the Disney franchise. The ‘Princess who Kissed the Frog’ sings “Why’d it take ‘em so long to give a sister a song… ‘cause I am that storybook princess that’s fin’lly gone black”. Giacino’s point is that it wasn’t until 2009 when, for the first time in animation history, the fairest of them all was black. Director Tom Jackson Greaves’ decision to introduce such diversity into the casting of ‘Disenchanted’ way before this moment lets the joke fall somewhat flat.
Overall, the irreverence of the material is dampened by the exaggerated gaiety of the cast. And the hue-changing green screen backdrop distracts instead of being a neutral backdrop to the colourful characters. It takes an effort not to be snagged by these grating hurdles, but for those who make the effort to overcome them there is some reward. There is a very fine line up of performers indeed. Led by Jodie Steele’s ‘Snow White’ and aided by side kicks Allie Daniel (Sleeping Beauty) and Sophie Isaacs (Cinderella) we are guided through a series of vignettes in which various princesses are summoned to sing their way through their dissatisfactions and parody the princess culture. Highlights include Grace Mouat’s ‘Pocahontas’ (a character hitherto homogenised by the entertainment industry willing to distort her true Native-American story purely to sell cinema tickets) who sardonically sings that she “looks like a porn star”. Jenny O’Leary, as ‘Rapunzel’, brilliantly bemoans the total absence of royalties she receives from the global merchandising of her name in a Kurt Weill inspired number. And Courtney Bowman’s scathing but catchy diatribe against Middle Eastern misogyny is inspired.
There is a tenuous thread running through the musical numbers, reinforced by the repeated #princesscomplex hashtag. The messages are clear, but even now becoming a bit dated; and the balance between spite and humour aren’t always weighed up fully. Its intended audience is clear too, but the delivery is confused and awkward, like the shady, disenchanted state of limbo an adolescent might feel: too old for the youth club but too young for the pub.
‘Disenchanted’ (dɪsɪnˈtʃɑːntɪd/): it lives up to its definition. The ingredients, the writing, the musicality and the star-studded cast promise something to be respected and admired. But there is a definite sense of disappointment.