Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 10, 2019
Be More Chill Music and lyrics by Joe Iconis. Book by Joe Tracz. Based on the novel by Ned Vizzini. Directed by Stephen Brackett. Music direction and vocal arrangements by Emily Marshall. Music supervision and orchestrations by Charlie Rosen. 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. Wig and makeup design by Dave Bova. Fight director J. David Brimmer. Music coordinator Michael Aarons. Dance arrangements by Rob Berman. Associate music director Geoffrey Ko. Associate choreographer Alicia Lundgren. Cast: Will Roland, George Salazar, Stephani Hsu, Gerard Canonico, Katlyn Carlson, Tiffany Mann, Lauren Marcus, Britton Smith, Jason Sweettooth Williams, Cameron Bond, Anthony Chatmon II, Morgan Siobhan Green, Troy Iwata, Talia Suskauer, Joel Waggoner, and Jason Tam.
Here's why. Beyond the marketing savvy, the creative team behind Be More Chill understands and is respectful of its target audience of teens and young adults better than pretty much any other show around, with Wicked arguably representing the gold standard of exceptions. These include Dear Evan Hansen, Mean Girls, and The Prom, all of which, with varying degrees of success, incorporate a built-in safety net of elements aimed at more traditional and generally quite a bit older theatergoers who reliably dole out the dollars and fill the seats.
The story Be More Chill tells is less psychologically complex than Steven Levenson's Dear Evan Hansen, less an adult's clever backward view of high school life than Tina Fey's Mean Girls, and less sprinkled with theater in-jokes than Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin's The Prom. Bravely, it dares to fly without such an older adult-oriented safety net and, in its own way, "defies gravity" by applying a laser-sharp focus on the 18-25 age demographic.
So, yes, of course, it is hyper-kinetic, with songs by Joe Iconis that rely on a highly amplified, steady pounding beat and simple straightforward lyrics that are altogether easy to memorize for anyone so inclined, such as the young woman sitting behind me who quietly sang along, word-for-word, with the score. Add to the mix a group of characters who are generally recognizable as high school students, who are not interchangeable but are readily distinguishable from one another, and who are all being played by talented, professional but not icky Hollywood-polished, engaging and enthusiastic actors.
The plot, a mélange of adolescent insecurity (no, not angst; it ain't that kind of show) and lightweight science fiction, originated in a young adult novel of the same title by Ned Vizzini, whose own biography is far sadder and darker than anything encountered by the characters in Be More Chill. Vizzini died an apparent suicide in his early 30s just a few years ago. Nothing remotely as disturbing occurs in the musical, as it tells the story of Jeremy (Will Roland), a high school junior who does not know where he fits in among his peers.
As much as Jeremy sees himself as a pathetic outcast, someone most definitely has his back. That would be his best bud Michael (George Salazar, whose performance of the lonely-guy-at-the-party song "Michael in the Bathroom" is already a breakout popular hit). It is Michael who has to wait patiently for his friend to return after Jeremy discovers a shortcut to social aptitude that shuts Michael out.
Here's where the science fictiony part comes in. Jeremy learns about a not-yet-fully-tested microcomputer which, when swallowed, makes its consumer "more chill." Before you know it, Jeremy has scooped up his saved Bar Mitzvah money for one of these pill-sized devices known as a "Squip." Once swallowed, Squip becomes an actual character in the show, replacing the nay-saying voices in Jeremy's head with a guiding voice of its own.
Squip (Jason Tam) takes on different forms that vary with the user; in Jeremy's eyes, he looks kind of like Keanu Reeves as Neo in "The Matrix." Squip provides the script for Jeremy to follow in his quest for popularity, but as you might guess, bypassing the normal awkward passage through adolescence turns out not to be such a great idea, especially when the show later moves into its "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" mode. (The score incorporates the electronic musical instrument, the Theremin, a singular nod to the older audience members, who will recognize the sound from many of their fondly recalled sci-fi, space invaders movies from long ago).
Not to worry, though. Everything works out fine in the end; this is not the place for irony. But more to the point, everything works becomes all of the elements work so smoothly together: the performances, Stephen Brackett's direction, Joe Tracz's book, Chase Brock's mostly frenetic choreography, and the design elements (nice combination of recognizable high school set by Beowulf Boritt and strange electronics-looking projections by Alex Basco Koch), and some great costumes by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, especially for a Halloween party, the one where Michael hides in the bathroom for most of the evening.
If you're looking for a more traditional show, there's always the revival of Kiss Me, Kate!, which opens in a few days at Studio 54. But if you want to check out what the musical theater kids are excited about, Be More Chill will do nicely.