Much has been made of “Be More Chill’s” unusual path to Broadway. Originally produced to middling response at New Jersey’s Two River Theater, the resulting cast album fueled a large cult following that led to a sold-out, seemingly critic-proof off-Broadway run last summer. The converted rejoice that an original musical has led to global fan worship among teenagers traversing the familiar tropes of adolescent angst. It has even been suggested that one significant result of a successful “Be More Chill 3.0,” as its creators affectionately dub the current production, might be to drive down the age of the average Broadway theatergoer.
For my part, I find the implicit messages the material sends to young people repellent enough that I would advocate for impressionable minds to take in this musical with caution. Watching the show, I recognized anew the extent to which slickly conceived entertainment can use theater craft to obfuscate what should instead be illuminated and examined, namely a moral center.
The story follows a standard trope of adolescent strife, adapted from a young adult novel by Ned Vizzini. We are asked to empathize with an anxious and nerdy young outsider, Jeremy Heere, convincingly played by Will Roland, who assumes the role after a turn in “Dear Evan Hansen.” Our hero, Jeremy, is uncomfortable in his own skin, and is coping with a single father (Jason SweetTooth Williams, who adeptly essays all the adult males as required by the story) who has not rebounded from the departure of Jeremy’s mother. However, Jeremy has a long-standing best friend, Michael (played by the completely winning and versatile George Salazar), who stays by his side, promising that the pair will be “cool in college.”
What isn’t familiar in the storyline is the introduction of a supercomputer cure-all for social anxiety in the form of an oblong-shaped gray pill called a Squip, which allegedly originates in Japan. Infatuated with Christine, a smart young woman in love with acting (played by a supremely talented Stephanie Hsu), Jeremy is prepared to risk ingesting the Squip to win Christine’s favor and become popular along the way, or as the typically “on the money” lyrics by Joe Iconis, (who also wrote the music), put it, “ You go from sad to interesting to hip, yeah your whole life will flip.” The music has clearly landed big time with its teen fan base, but many of the numbers struck me as generic peppy pop.
Jeremy swallows the pill and meets his Squip (Jason Tam) in the form of a three-dimensional vision with a passing resemblance to Keanu Reeves in Samurai gear. (The over the top, Day-Glo, giving-Broadway-audiences-their-monies’ worth costuming is by Bobby Frederick Tilley II.) Thus newly equipped with an Eminem T-shirt and 20/20 vision, Jeremy attempts to build a relationship with the theater-obsessed Christine.
However, as the musical proceeds, I found its tone increasingly off-putting. Shredding whatever sense of self-esteem Jeremy might still cling to, the Squip sings a “take down” number to him with lyrics like “everything about you is so terrible….everything about you makes me wanna die.” Jeremy is soon convinced (as the Squip, Tam is charismatic enough to almost make you like his increasingly villainous intruder) and joins in, “Everything about me makes me wanna die.” Are we having fun yet?
The unsavory ethos of the musical, directed by Stephen Brackett, is underscored by a frenetic pace, so that the diverse and talented cast often seem pushed to the edge of caricature by cheap jokes and manic performances. The pace rarely abates long enough for any feeling to read as authentic. Chase Brock puts the ensemble through choreography that would work for any body if performed fast enough, driven by the pounding volume of the uber-amplified score.
The characterization of Jeremy’s peers, particularly the young women, also left me cold. Besides Christine, they seem to have absolutely no sense of self-worth, or capacity to see beyond their self-preoccupation. It may be that similar to another Broadway musical “Mean Girls,” (though the latter benefits from more complex depictions), we are meant to find the spectacle of young women betraying their friends and diminishing each other without compunction (as popular girl Chloe Valentine does to her second-in-command Brooke Lohst, who briefly dates Jeremy) to be amusing.
And yet, when Chloe (Katlyn Carlson) appears at the inevitable Halloween party that begins the confused second act, dressed as a “naughty” baby who seduces Jeremy by singing, “Do you wanna get inside my diaper, boy?” I was not laughing. Parleying joyless revenge sex while “wasted” simply strikes me as bleak.
Similarly, when the talented, big-voiced Tiffany Mann who plays the resident gossip girl, parodies “Bye Bye Birdie” in the song “The Smartphone Hour” not one character displays any concern about literal arson committed by one of their friends.
The second act is also where the sci-fi futuristic, techno-apocalypse loop intensifies. The effective iPhone-shaped set by Beowulf Boritt becomes a giant video screen, flashing with projections that display tech images and circuitry that eventually fracture. The visuals are apt because increasingly we sense that the action is unfurling randomly.
As Jeremy’s social status rises, we tellingly see more of his character. In one crucial scene at the Halloween party, where we are told Jeremy is not under the Squip’s commands, Jeremy repulses his friend Michael’s attempts at rescue, calling him a “loser.” It was at this point that I began to pray for a suitably punitive comeuppance for the spineless Jeremy. Spoiler alert — no such luck transpires. The spurned Michael is however given the opportunity to nail the show’s eleven o’clock number, the viral anthem “Michael in the Bathroom,” which channels teen rejection in a consummately triumphant way.
An outcome where the behavior of our compromised protagonist doesn’t earn him the love of the woman he wants, or where the two principled characters, Michael and Stephanie, are somehow conspicuously rewarded for doing the plain hard work of growing up might redeem the material. But that is not the show on the stage; the one being embraced with obsessive ardor by young people in untold numbers likely for years to come. They deserve more from the theater. Extraordinary young people doing exceptional things to better the world set the current generation apart. Perhaps the next musical will be about them.
“Be More Chill” opened at the Lyceum Theatre on Sun. March 10, 2019.
Creative: Book by Joe Tracz; Music by Joe Iconis; Lyrics by Joe Iconis; Based on the novel by Ned Vizzini; Music orchestrated by Charlie Rosen; Directed by Stephen Brackett; Choreographed 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.
Producers: Gerald Goehring, Michael F. Mitri, Jennifer Ashley Tepper, Marc David Levine, Marlene and Gary Cohen, 42nd.club, Viertel Routh Frankel Baruch Group, Jenny Niederhoffer, Ben Holtzman and Sammy Lopez, Jenn Maley and Cori Stolbun, Joan and Robert Rechnitz, Chris Blastings/Simpson & Longthorne, Koenigsberg/Federman/Adler, YesBroadway Productions, Kumiko Yoshii, Bruce Robert Harris and Jack W. Batman, Jay and Cindy Gutterman/Caiola Productions, Phil Kenny/Jim Kierstead, deRoy/Winkler/Batchelder, Jonathan Demar/Kim Vasquez, Brad Blume/Gemini Theatrical Investors, LLC, Alisa and Charlie Thorne, Fred and Randi Sternfeld, Connor Tinglum/Andrew Hendrick, Ashlee Latimer and Jenna Ushkowitz and Two River Theater.
Actors: Will Roland, Stephanie Hsu, George Salazar, Jason Tam, Gerard Canonico, Katlyn Carlson, Tiffany Mann, Lauren Marcus, Britton Smith, Jason SweetTooth Williams.