Making its New York debut in a limited engagement at The Pershing Square Signature Center, Be More Chill – sold-out before it opened and extended for another sold-out week beyond its initially-scheduled nine-week run – is a potent illustration of the power of the internet to create a popular phenomenon in our digitized culture. With over 150 million streams and counting of the cast album from the original 2015 production (at Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ, which commissioned the work) and video clips and posts going viral on an array of social-media platforms, the musical-comedy sensation by Joe Iconis (music and lyrics) and Joe Tracz (book), based on the 2004 cult novel of the same name by Ned Vizzini, found a new and unexpected life Off-Broadway. Lucky for us that it did.
Inventively combining retro-sci-fi and futuristic technology with pop-culture references, a high-voltage score and choreography, and a keen-witted understanding of the universal challenges of being a teen, the LOL contemporary narrative follows the journey of Jeremy Heere, a not-so-cool high-school student in small-town New Jersey, who hopes he can improve his social standing, put an end to the bullying he faces on a daily basis, consummate his crush on his classmate Christine, and feel better about himself by upgrading to a perfect life with the ingestion of the “Squip” – a mini-computer in capsule form that embeds itself in his brain and programs his mind to achieve the popularity he craves. But will his newfound confidence be all that, or will he lose his authentic self and become a person he wouldn’t really like, and shouldn’t want to be, in the process?
Stephen Brackett directs with an eye on the hilarity, heartbreak, and honesty inherent in this thoroughly-engaging coming-of-age story, and a terrific ensemble delivers hysterically-funny characterizations of the familiar high-school archetypes (the mean girls, the hot guy, the bully, the gossip, and the outcasts). Starring in the New York production is Will Roland as Jeremy, a self-acknowledged “Loser Geek Whatever” and the epitome of teenage angst. With behavior that is sometimes questionable, sometimes laughable, sometimes devastating, but always recognizable, he transforms, with the aid of The Squip (personified with a commanding presence by Jason Tam), from video-game (and video-porn) nerd into a big-deal cool guy, and ultimately to a young adult who reboots to Jeremy 1.0 after fatal bugs are detected in the new computer-generated version of himself and the other students who’ve been infected.
George Salazar (returning from the original New Jersey cast) turns in a stellar performance as Jeremy’s best friend Michael, who has the foresight to recognize that “high school is hell” but they’ll be “cool in college” in their rousing Act I duet “Two-Player Game” – an upbeat paean to their long-time bromance and not-so-distant future. His mood then shifts dramatically in Act II, at a blow-out Halloween costume party to which he wasn’t invited. His achingly poignant performance of “Michael in the Bathroom” is a showstopper, brimming over with emotion and building to a crescendo of the heartrending adolescent urgency of being an outsider, dumped by Jeremy (now under the mind-control of The Squip), and feeling completed abandoned, isolated, and alone.
Stephanie Hsu (also a member of the original company) is a delight as Christine, the object of Jeremy’s affection and the lead member of the school’s drama club (a clever self-referencing device by the show’s creators). She is at first adorably hyperactive (“I Love Play Rehearsal”), then swept away and played by the wrong boy (“A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into”), before becoming more grounded and self-reflective, in a convincing portrayal of her character’s maturation process. And new to the Off-Broadway cast is Jason SweetTooth Williams in three distinct adult roles, as Jeremy’s Dad (depressed since his wife left and living in his underwear and bathrobe all day, every day), Mr. Reyes (the high-school drama teacher who’d rather be on Broadway and turns a blind eye to the school’s rampant bullying), and the Scary Stockboy (who pushes Squips in a shop at the local mall).
The exhilarating songs mix Broadway-style show tunes and ballads with rock and techno (music direction and vocal arrangements by Emily Marshall; music supervision and orchestrations by Charlie Rosen), and Chase Brock’s spot-on choreography ranges from ebulliently youthful to sci-fi creepy. Among the many highlights, performed with exuberance by the dynamic ensemble (featuring Tiffany Mann as Jenna, Katlyn Carlson as Chloe, and Lauren Marcus as Brooke), is “The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire),” in which the word about a sobering event at the party is spread like virtual wildfire by the connected girls.
A colorful post-modern scenic design by Beowulf Boritt (inspired by computer screens and circuit boards) is augmented by Alex Basco Koch’s visually-exciting projections, Tyler Micoleau’s electric-hued and neon lighting, and eerie electronic sound effects by Ryan Rumery. Bobby Frederick Tilley provides eye-catching everyday wear and party costumes that define the personalities with incisively-amusing accuracy.
Along with its high entertainment value, Be More Chill offers key psychological insight into the mind and struggles of contemporary youth, examining the serious social issues of teenage gossip and bullying, anxiety and depression, recreational drug use, and being virtually connected online but not to the emotional reality of others around you. The show also sends an important message of positive reinforcement to all kids who question their own self-worth: you’re enough as you. With a theme and music that speak to the teens of our digital age (and to everyone else who remembers the trauma and hormonally-charged emotions of being in high school), it is a smart, funny, and compelling show that has the potential to make lifelong theatergoers out of the current generation. So if you really believe that the theater is dead, just “be more chill” and, if you weren’t fortunate enough to score tickets for the current run, see this phenomenal work in a future production. Did you hear that, Broadway?
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission.
Be More Chill plays through Sunday, September 30, 2018, performing at The Pershing Square Signature Center, The Irene Diamond Stage – 480 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets, call (212) 279-4200, or go online.