'Be More Chill': Theater Review
A socially awkward teenager achieves newfound popularity after ingesting a pill-sized supercomputer in this musical whose cast album has been streamed 150 million times.
That Be More Chill is not your typical musical becomes immediately apparent from the opening scene. We're introduced to the teenage central character as he's frustratedly giving up his plans for masturbation because the porn is taking too long to load onto his computer. The uproarious laughter that ensues demonstrates that this is a problem to which the target audiences can easily relate.
Things only get stranger in the show, which features music and lyrics by Joe Iconis (NBC's Smash) and a book by Joe Tracz, adapted from the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini. Not quite as odd, however as its backstory: Be More Chill premiered three years ago at New Jersey's Two River Theater, not necessarily a venue associated with funneling new musical work into New York. The show received mixed reviews and finished out its limited run. But its cast album became an online sensation and has been streamed some 150 million times. Having become a cult phenomenon, the musical is now receiving its New York City premiere in a limited off-Broadway engagement.
The story revolves around Jeremy (Will Roland, Dear Evan Hanson), a sad sack high school junior whose dad (Jason Sweettooth Williams) hasn't bothered to wear pants since Jeremy's mother walked out on them. Jeremy's life is suddenly transformed when, upon the advice of cool classmate Rich (Gerard Canonico), he ingests a supercomputer in pill-sized form called "The Squip" (a very funny Jason Tam).
Aided by the microprocessor inside his head who bears a striking resemblance to Keanu Reeves, Jeremy finally achieves the coolness and popularity he's long desired. Not to mention getting the opportunity to win the heart of Christine (Stephanie Hsu), with whom he's besotted but who seems more interested in the school jock (Britton Smith). The Squip also teaches him such important lessons as "a shared negative opinion is the fastest social bond."
Not surprisingly, Jeremy's newfound popularity and sex appeal to the hot girls at school don't come without problems. He no longer pays attention to his former best friend Michael (George Salazar), whom he literally can't see since the Squip has control of his optic nerve. And Jeremy eventually learns that the Squip's true motivation is far more nefarious than simply helping socially awkward teenagers.
The show features plenty of amusing off-kilter gags, such as the school's drama teacher (Williams, who plays all the adult characters) deciding to put on a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream featuring zombies, or the Squip needing to be washed down with Mountain Dew in order for it to work (that becomes a major plot point). The musical also displays a genuine sweetness, especially in its depiction of the burgeoning relationship between Jeremy and Christine, who turns out to have a Squip of her own.
Iconis' pop-rock score includes plenty of enjoyably catchy, uptempo numbers such as "Upgrade" and the title tune. But it also makes room for the occasional ballad, including "Michael in the Bathroom," a plaintive but witty lament beautifully sung by Salazar. One of the band's musicians even plays a theremin, adding a suitable eeriness to the show, which is partially inspired by vintage sci-fi films.
Director Stephen Brackett (The Lightning Thief, Buyer & Cellar) keeps things moving at a frenetic pace, with Chase Brock's energetic choreography providing plenty of opportunities for the young performers to exhibit their athleticism. Alex Basco Koch's projections infuse the proceedings with an appropriate video game-style aesthetic, while Bobby Frederick Tilley II's costumes have just the right teen raggedness.
Exuberantly performed by its talented ensemble, the musical is definitely not for everyone. The material is frequently less than sophisticated and sometimes becomes vulgar, and the music's deafening volume will prove an affront to older ears. But the evening ultimately proves so winning that it's hard to entirely resist. If you can't find something to enjoy about it, it might be that you simply need to be more chill.
Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Gerard Canonico, Katlyn Carlson, Stephanie Hsu, Tiffany Mann, Lauren Marcus, Will Roland, George Salazar, Britton Smith, Jason Tam, Jason Sweettooth Williams
Music & lyrics: Joe Iconis
Book: Joe Tracz, based on the novel by Ned Vizzini
Director: Stephen Brackett
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Bobby Frederick Tilley II
Lighting designer: Tyler Micoleau
Sound designer: Ryan Rumery
Projection designer: Alex Basco Koch
Choreographer: Chase Brock
Presented by Gerald Goehring, Michael F. Mitri, Jennifer Ashley Tepper, Marc David Levine, Marlene and Gary Cohen, 42nd.Club, The Baruch Frankel Viertel Group, Alisa and Charlie Thorne, Jenny Niederhoffer, Chris Blasting/Simpson & Longthorne, Brad Blume/Gemini Theatrical, Jonathan Demar/Kim Vasquez, Ben Holtzman and Sammy Lopez, Koenigsberg/Federman/Ashley Latimer and Jenna Ushkowitz, Jenn Maley and Cori Stolbun, Robert and Joan Rechnitz, Fred and Randi Sternfeld and YesBroadway Productions, in association with Two River Theater