To outsiders, Be More Chill is a hyper-energetic pop-rock musical opening tonight Off-Broadway, starring Will Roland (Dear Evan Hansen) as a high school student named Jeremy Heere who sees himself as a loser but then swallows a pill containing a supercomputer and becomes cool.
Jeremy’s journey is of course a sci-fi fantasy. But thanks to its fans, the odyssey of the musical itself is also fairly far out.
Be More Chill is based on a 2004 young adult novel of the same name by Ned Vizzini. Playwright Joe Tracz (who also wrote the book for the musical adaptation of the Lightning Thief) and songwriter Joe Iconis (best-known for composing “Broadway Here I Come” in the second season of the TV series Smash) adapted Vizzini’s book for the stage in 2015. It ran for a few weeks at New Jersey’s Two River Theater, and received lukewarm reviews.
But the short run yielded an original cast album. And over the past three years the music gained an intense following. The album reportedly has been streamed more than 150 million times; it charted in the Billboard Cast Album Top 10. The massive enthusiasm for the album is surely what persuaded a boatload of producers to mount the musical Off-Broadway, keeping five of the original ten cast members. The decision has already paid off: Even before it opens, the entire nine-week run of Be More Chill is sold out (although they are still offering tickets for a daily lottery)
Check out some two dozen photographs and three videos from the production on NewYorkTheater.me
The ticket-buyers seem largely 15-year-olds and their parents, judging from the crowd that filled the theater the night I saw the show, many of whom bought up the Be More Chill-brand hat, t-shirts and tote bags.
You don’t have to be 15 to be thrilled by the best moments in the Off-Broadway production of Be More Chill, a musical about high school, presented by a terrifically talented cast, that is too quirky and clever to be dismissed as a standard high school musical bestiary, But it might help to be a teenage fan in order to enjoy all two and a half hours of Be More Chill, even those times when the music turns very loud and the story turns very weird.
The show starts off on a high with “More Than Survive,” in which Roland as Jeremy gives us a quick and tuneful introduction to his day (“If I’m not feeling weird or super strange/My life would be in utter disarray/Cuz freaking out is my OK”) and to the people who inhabit it:
His father (Jason SweetTooth Williams) who, since his wife (and Jeremy’s mother) left, rarely leaves the house, and never seems to wear any pants
His best (and only) friend Michael (George Salazar) fellow video game nerd and self-proclaimed loser
Christine (Stephanie Hsu), a classmate of Jeremy’s and his unattainable love interest.
The most popular girls in the school (Katlyn Carlson as Chloe, Tiffany Mann as Jenna, Lauren Marcus as Brooke), and the most popular boy, smooth-talking ladies’ man Jake (Britton Smith), who take time out from ignoring Jeremy to make fun of him.
Rich (Gerard Canonico), who bullies Jeremy.
Jeremy is not happy with his lot, but his hopes are modest; he just wants to survive.
I don’t want to be a hero
Just wanna stay in the line
I’ll never be a Rob DeNiro
For me, Joe Pesci is fine
It’s Rich the bully who tells Jeremy about Squip – Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor – and how it changed his own life; he too was a loser. Jeremy buys the pill from a dealer (the versatile Jason SweetTooth Williams) who works as a stockboy at a Payless Shoe store. Jeremy downs it with the requisite Mountain Dew, and his personal Squip materializes before him (in the person of Jason Tam)
The Squip initially appears to be little more than a high-tech personal growth counselor –
Your tics and fidgets are persistent
And your charm is non-existent
Fix your vibe, then fix some more
But the Squip is eventually revealed (spoiler alert) as not being in Jeremy’s best interests; it seems intent on world domination (like much high tech these days), although the Squip’s motives are not entirely spelled out. It’s also not clear whether there is a metaphor at play here – for adolescent drug use, perhaps, or our over-reliance on tech, or more generally our culture’s obsession with quick fixes, which fix nothing.
One song, “The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set A Fire)” is a clear satire of the excesses of social media, a cheekier rendition of a major theme of Dear Evan Hansen. There is also a less successful satire in the show, in which the school drama teacher (again Jason SweetTooth Williams) tries to make Shakespeare more hip by producing “Midsummer Nightmare About Zombies”. This is unfortunately hard to ignore completely, since this play-within-the-musical figures in the resolution of the plot.
Still, the sci-fi aspects of the musical give an excuse for some impressively vertigo-inducing design (especially the projection design by Alex Basco Koch.) Chase Brock’s choreography is also flavored by some jerky movement one associates with aliens or computers, although much of it is more the youthful bouncing up and down we recognize from Rent and Spring Awakening.
What’s most memorable about Be More Chill are the moments, especially a few catchy songs, in which cast members offer a fresh take on a basic theme common to many shows featuring teenagers – as Jeremy puts it, “I used to think I was the only person at this school who felt weird and sad, but now I see— everyone does.” Stand-out George Salazar sings a show-stopping “Michael in the Bathroom At A Party:
I am hanging in the bathroom
At the biggest party of the fall I could stay right here
and nobody’s even notice at all
Stephanie Hsu is charmingly awkward as Christine, especially in the song “I Love Play Rehearsal.” At one point, Christine says something you sense the creative team might have said to one another while creating this musical: “I wish there was something real I could do to make things better, but I don’t know how. So I guess I’ll just do theater.” But for all its flights of fancy and saucy humor, Be More Chill at its best does feel like something real, and does make things better.
Be More Chill is on stage at the Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street, just East of 10th Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10036) through September 23, 2018.
Be More Chill
Music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, book by Joe Tracz. Based on the novel by Ned Vizzini. Directed by Stephen Brackett. Choreography by Chase Brock. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, lighting design by Tyler Micoleau, sound design by Ryan Rumery, projection design by Alex Basco Koch, musical direction by Emily Marshall; orchestrations by Charlie Rosen. Featuring Gerard Canonico as Rich, Katlyn Carlson as Chloe, Stephanie Hsu as Christine, Tiffany Mann as Jenna, Lauren Marcus as Brooke, Will Roland as Jeremy, George Salazar as Michael, Britton Smith as Jake, Jason Tam as The Squip, and Jason SweetTooth Williams as Jeremy’s Dad/Mr. Reyes. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.
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