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RED BANK: ‘SQUIPS’ STAY AFTER SCHOOL

A preview of BE MORE CHILL, now in an extended furn at the Two River Theater.

By TOM CHESEK

The academic year may be ending right about nowfor most high schools, but for the cast of the school-set musical Be More Chill, graduation day has been delayed another week.

By popular demand, the amped-up, sci-fi infused, satirical tunefest – a production originally scheduled to ring down the curtain after June 21 – has been ordered to “stay after school” at Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company, with a round of five additional performances between June 25 and 28.

If you haven’t caught this talent-packed, ready-for-primetime piece of work —the third consecutive world premiere in a season of surprises at Two River — you may be missing out on a darkly comic and brightly energetic offering; one that closes out the current TRTC schedule on a “high” note in more ways than one.

Adapted from a teen-reader novel by Ned Vizzini – a wunderkind author who died by his own hand a few years back – the show from the songwriting team of Joe Iconis (TV’s Smash) and Joe Tracz (the upcoming stage version of The Lightning Thief) assembles a cast of young Broadway avengers under the direction of Stephen Brackett (also of the Lightning Thief project), for an outing that’s technically dazzling. It’s also refreshingly devoid of sentiment and sermonizing for the most part, although there’s a fizzy moral center and a sweet aftertaste that can’t be coincidental with a story in which Mountain Dew plays such a crucial role.

Set in a majority-white suburban New Jersey milieu, Chill presents a little universe that orbits around the hallways, bathrooms and all-purpose zones (but almost never the classrooms) of the local high school. True to most people’s experiences, it’s an environment fueled almost entirely by the three-pronged pursuit of Sex, Status, and whatever mind-altering Substances (including various hues of Dew) make it all bearable. In this case, Squips.

Described as a Japanese-created supercomputer in pill form – a thing so new and off-radar that it can’t be discussed online and can only be purchased from a guy in back of the PayLess store – the Squip is the device that makes possible a supercharged transition from insecure, socially awkward, self-doubting normal teenager, to fully accepted member of an instantaneous In Crowd. An internalized mentor and slick spirit-guide that knows all the answers – and an uncharted portal into a scarier hive-mind mentality – the Squip proves irresistible to Jeremy (Will Connolly of Broadway’s Once), a shy kid whose only friend is fellow gaming geek Michael (George Salazar of the 2011 Godspell revival), and whose dad (fellow Once-ler Paul Whitty) hasn’t bothered to put on pants since Jeremy’s mom walked out on her family.

Guided and goaded by Eric William Morris (Mamma Mia!) as the duster-coated personification of the Squip, Jeremy injects himself into a group that includes diminutive bully Rich (Gerard Canonico of Spring Awakening and American Idiot), jock Jake (Jake Boyd of Rock of Ages) and spite-sexing Chloe (Katlyn Carlson). It’s a journey that somehow brings him no closer to winning a date with theater hopeful Christine (Stephanie Hsu) – even as it threatens the loss of his soul, his sanity, and his sincere connections to the people who truly care about him.

It’s all put forth with a score of fun and clever songs – a fun time tempered with the knowledge of author Vizzini’s tragic real-life struggle with depression – and a cast of twentysomethings who convincingly conjure the vulnerable kids curled up inside the cool-crowd trappings. Well paced by director Brackett (and reinforced with the aural/visual punch of Tyler Micoleau’s lights and Zachary Williamson’s sound design), the show’s vibe sometimes veers toward the sci-fi-musical turf staked out by the likes of Little Shop of Horrors – only minus the retro camp factor, and with an underlying story that runs a bit more deeply genuine than most Shop-inspired Fringe Festival sort of fare.

Performing arrangements by Charlie Rosen, a strong six-piece band led by Nathan Dame lends real bite to the two Joes’ songs, a collection that mixes some savvy and cynical ensemble numbers (“Upgrade;” the SmartPhone-driven “Rich Set a Fire”) with standout character solos like Dad’s “Pants Song,” Christine’s sweetly irresistible “I Love Play Rehearsal,” and Salazar’s showstopping turn with the spurned-friend lament “Michael in the Bathroom.” It’s a strong capper as well to a pivotal slate of homegrown productions from TRTC; a possible candidate for greater exposure in the big stagescape beyond Red Bank; and a real bid for the attentions of a younger theatergoing audience. Catch it now, kids – because next year at this time Two River will be staging a version of the sentimental I Remember Mama, in which all parts (women, men, children) will be portrayed by actresses over the age of 65.

Tickets to tonight’s June 18 performance of Be More Chill are close to selling out as we post this – but seating is available for the showtimes on Friday (8 pm), Saturday (3 and 8 pm) and Sunday (3 pm), as well as the newly added shows on June 25-26 (8 pm), June 27 (2 pm) and June 28 (2 and 7 pm). Take it here for reservations ($20 – $65 adults).

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From a brave new Broadway-ready musical, we segue to a classic of the community-theater stage, as the Jerry Herman warhorse Mame returns to the local stage as the first in a new season of shows from Middletown’s  Stone Church Players. When the Players reconvene at All Saints’ Memorial Church (the historic “Old Stone Church” at the crossroads of Navesink and Monmouth Avenues) this weekend, they’ll be illuminating the 1966 Broadway hit (adapted from the Patrick Dennis novel Auntie Mame) of a life-loving eccentric who finds herself charged with the care and upbringing of a young nephew during the challenging times of Depression and WWII-era New York. Shore area stage stalwart Carole Darché steps into the title role originated by Angela Lansbury; joined by Lynne Cefalo, Christine jay and (sharing the part of nephew Patrick) Julian Sarin and Nicholas Wainwright, under the direction of Michael McClellan. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, plus Sundays at 3 pm, through June 28. Tickets ($25; $15 for seniors and students) can be reserved by calling (732)226-6131.

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