To quote a song from the tenacious – and tenaciously enjoyable – Be More Chill, the Joe Iconis-Joe Tracz musical arrives on Broadway with just enough of an “upgrade” from last summer’s Off Broadway staging to fill its new home and the greater expectations that come with the move. The costumes, the scenic design, the projections of computer gimcrackery and video game effects all seem buffed, beglittered and amped up just enough to suit Broadway demands without swamping the heart and humor that caught everyone’s attention in the first place.
By now, you might have heard about Be More Chill, if only for its unusual route to Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre (where it opens tonight under the swift and generous direction of Stephen Brackett). Based on a novel by the late Young Adult author Ned Vizzini, Be More Chill first hit the stage at a New Jersey theater in 2015, and more or less came and went. A cast album, though, found digital popularity and went viral, building up a huge, global and fiercely devoted following that almost certainly included the very sorts the musical chronicles: The teens and tweens and theater geeks struggling to find a safe spot in the mean halls of high school.
The song that first caught fire on the web – “Michael In the Bathroom,” performed then, as now, by audience favorite George Salazar – captured the tone and appeal of the musical: Impossibly catchy pop show tune (composer Iconis was best known, until Chill, for NBC’s Smash) combining upbeat, even joyous musicality with some truly dark and uncompromising sentiments. Michael, the outcast and likely gay buddy of the main character Jeremy (Will Roland) has been abandoned by his suddenly popular pal, and hides out in terror and embarrassment in a bathroom at a house party rather than mix with the kids who either ignore or torment him at school. “This is a heinous night,” Michael sings as a line forms outside the locked bathroom door. He continues:
This is a heinous night
I wish I stayed at home instead
Watching cable porn
Or wish I offed myself instead
Wish I was never born
I’m just Michael
Who’s a loner
If Be More Chill recalls Little Shop of Horrors – and it does, in tone, humor and the blend of sci-fi flights and sweet-natured humanism – then “Michael In The Bathroom” is its “Suddenly Seymour,” the show’s charm in microcosm.
Chill‘s Seymour is Jeremy Heere (Dear Evan Hansen‘s supporting player Will Roland, moving to a lead role in a star-making performance), a self-described (in song) “loser, geek, whatever” from New Jersey who lives with his depressed, recently single dad (Jason SweetTooth Williams) and spends hour after hour playing video games with his longtime best friend Michael (Salazar). Though it’s never spelled out, Michael is probably in love with the straight Jeremy, who only has eyes for the theater geek Christine (Stephanie Hsu), who herself is besotted with the popular jock Jake (Britton Smith).
Others in the school orbit include bully Rich (Gerard Canonico), a sort of Eminem-Joe Pesci mash-up who daily targets Jeremy. Soon enough, Rich makes clear why he’s chosen Jeremy: He wants to recruit him to the life-saving, crisis-solving joys of the “Squip,” a super-computer in pill form (“it’s from Japan” is the only explanation offered or needed) that, when swallowed, finds it way to the user’s brain and literally tells him everything he or she needs to know, say and do to become popular. To use the right words. To be more chill.
Once lodged in the brain, the Squip takes a human form that only the user can see – in Jeremy’s case, the Squip looks and sounds a lot like Keanu Reeves in Matrix regalia, no doubt the kid’s ideal of cool. Actor Jason Tam plays the Reeves-like Squip flawlessly and with seemingly effortless authority and grace.
More or less a shortcut to conformity, the show’s Squip can be interpreted as an allegory for any number of teenage demons. I suspect older audiences will jump at the illicit drug parallels, not incorrectly but not quite adequately. With its ability to sync up users thoughts and behaviors with one another, the Squip seems a likely stand-in for social media and technology in general. But as more than one character goes to great pains to insist, it isn’t the tech that’s bad, but how we use it, and so the Squip might represent humankind’s internal desires and instincts as much as any external threat.
And just as Little Shop spread its tentacles into full-on sci-fi comedy, so too does Chill. Jeremy’s high school is putting on a play – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as rewritten by its Waiting For Guffman-type teacher as a zombie nightmare – and soon enough the Squipped-out zombies threaten to take over the school and, well, everything else.
There’s literally zero chance that Jeremy won’t rise above his Squip, win the girl on his own terms, re-team with his lost pal Michael, and even set things right with depressed Dad – you need no spoiler warners to arrive at that expectation well before intermission. The question – and the considerable fun – of Be More Chill is how, exactly, the suddenly callous and cool Jeremy will arrive at his redemption, and how much heartache he’ll cause on the way. No matter, really, as the production, the music, Chase Brock’s ebullient choreography, and the truly fine cast – no weak link – make the journey a full-on treat.
Going in, I was worried that the pleasure of discovering this charmer somewhere along its earlier, perhaps less heralded incarnations might be overwhelmed by full-on Broadway success. It’s one thing to share delight with friends both known and unknown over a digital cast album that no one else seemed to have heard of, or even, as I did, arrive fairly late to the party with last summer’s Off Broadway staging. In recent months and weeks since producers announced the Broadway transfer, I’ve heard more than one theater lover bracing himself for what often seemed to be the next coming of Dear Evan Hansen. That’s as unfair to the show as it is to the theatergoer.
My worries vanished with the first song, “More Than Survive,” in which Jeremy awakens to begin his day – and the musical – with the immensely ear-candyish tune that includes no fewer than two hooks you won’t soon unhear: first, a sort of refrain – “C-c-c c’mon, c-c-c- c’mon, Go, Go” – meant to echo the stammers of his freeze-prone old laptop as he’s attempting to begin his daily routine with a bit of porn-assisted self-pleasure. Then the song unfolds into Jeremy’s lament of “I don’t wanna be a hero,” gorgeously sung by Roland with flights of what may or may not be legitimate falsetto but thrill nonetheless.
In its move to Broadway’s Lyceum, Be More Chill looks flashier and more colorful than earlier incarnations – though, to be clear, not outrageously so. Last summer’s home – Off Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center – is a marvelous theater, and roughly the size of the Lyceum, so there really wasn’t much beefing up to do. Mostly we’re seeing flashier lights for the computer-graphics set design, bolder costumes and, more crucially and beneficially, a new song called “Sync Up” that gives Jeremy’s all-knowing Squip a chance to explain – to Jeremy and the audience – the sad and debilitating secrets hiding in even the most popular of students. In the upgraded Be More Chill, every cast member, from star to secondary, gets a chance to shine, and shine they do.
And here is where Be More Chill stakes its most righteous claim: For all of its storyline predictability and maybe too-happy-resolutions, Joe Tracz’s book and, especially, Iconis’ lyrics don’t flinch from the darkness and panic of the teenage mind. Listen to the internal dialogue between Jeremy and his Squip:
Jeremy, you can’t just listen. You have to obey
Now repeat after me:
Woah, everything about you is so terrible
Everything about me is just terrible
Woah, everything about you makes me wanna die
Everything about me makes me wanna die
Now you got it
Is it any wonder the musical caught on among teens and tweens as they listened alone in their bedrooms or wherever, then shared with friends and fellow travelers? As bouncy and silly and fanciful as Be More Chill can get, it rarely talks down to its audiences, and a show that accomplishes that, and does it so well, deserves ever new audiences, perhaps even those more familiar with plush Broadway seats. They should swallow whatever Be More Chill has to offer.