Review: Could ‘Be More Chill’ Be More Shrill?
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, August 17, 2018
The musical Be More Chill was already a bit of a sensation even before it recently opened Off-Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The show had its world premiere in Redbank, NJ in 2015 at the Two River Theater, which had commissioned the piece. There was a bit of buzz about the show on the Interwebs at the time, which caused some to think it might transfer to New York, but all that came out of that production, at least for a while, was a cast recording and some incomplete pirated videos.
Well, based on that recording and those videos, online word of mouth made Be More Chill a bona fide phenomenon, including fan art, fan fiction, wikis, animatics, blogs, vlogs, Tumblrs, Subreddits, and something called a “dating sim.” Not surprisingly, the show’s Off-Broadway run quickly sold out. And when the producers recently announced a one-week extension, that very quickly sold out as well.
So, is Be More Chill worth all of the hubbub? Is the show itself any good?
Well, first let me say that, when I saw the show, it was a genuine thrill to see so many teenagers in a legitimate theater. Frequently, when I see a show in New York, I feel like I’m the youngest one there, and I was born in the 1960s. It was especially heartening to witness the throng of fans eagerly waiting behind stanchions in the Signature lobby waiting to meet the cast after the show. Anything that gets this many young people to see live theater is something to heartily applaud.
I would love to report that Be More Chill is a refreshing and exhilarating experience, but I found it frenetic and grating. Much of this has to do with earsplitting impact of the sound system. I mean, we are talking actively painful volume here. I actually had to put my fingers in my ears at a number of points throughout the show. A conversation with the house manager revealed that this decibel level was intentional on the part of the creators. Harrumph.
Beyond the danger the production posed to my eardrums, the show itself is a bit shaky. The story concerns one Jeremy Heere, a high school geek who wants to be one of the cool kids, who discovers a pill that contains a supercomputer (called a “Squip” or “Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor”) that will create an inner voice — embodied in the show by actor Jason Tam — that will guide him to coolosity. Jeremy takes the pill, discovers the joys of non-geekishness, and in the process leaves behind his best friend and fellow nerd, Michael. It turns out, there’s a far more nefarious intent behind these Squips than merely to make teenagers more popular, and the story unfolds from there.
On the heels of such shows as Heathers, Dear Evan Hansen, and Mean Girls, Be More Chill feels just as much of a wannabe as its central character. Add in a heavy dose of Little Shop of Horrors, with just a touch of Bye Bye Birdie, and Be More Chill looks like a show struggling to find an identity of its own.
Composer/lyricist Joe Iconis has been circling the Broadway scene for years. He’s written more than a half dozen shows in the last ten years, but so far none has gone beyond a limited Off-Broadway run. His songs for Be More Chill definitely show craft and promise, if not immediate memorability, with a quirky sense of character, and a strong ear for the youthful language of the characters in the show.
The book for Be More Chill by Joe Tracz (based on the same-titled novel by Ned Vizzini) is a bit more problematic. Like Iconis’ lyrics, Tracz’s dialogue feels authentic, but it’s also a bit uniform. The characters don’t feel like they have individual voices. Some of the drama of the story feels manufactured, particularly with regard to Jeremy’s attempts to hook up with the girl of his dreams, literal drama queen Christine Canigula. The complications that beset the pair have all the believability of a plot from a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie (which is to say, very little).
The characters of Be More Chill, especially Jeremy and Michael, are clearly meant to be endearing, but they mostly come off as just whiny. Jeremy (played by Will Roland, minus the sharp sense of character he demonstrated as Jared in Dear Evan Hansen) is just one big want, and we don’t get much sense of him beyond that. Michael (played by the appealing George Salazar) starts off endearingly quirky, but he ends up being pretty morose, particularly during his bathetic second-act solo, “Michael in the Bathroom.”
[Warning: Plot spoilers below]
Most problematic is the show’s denouement, which is dependent on a flaw in the Squip system somewhat akin to that of antique Christmas lights (i.e. if one goes out, they all go out). Even by the belief-suspension standards of science fiction, this strains credulity. Surely, a superior race with the acumen and technology to create an ingestible mind-controlling computer would be savvy enough to create some kind of failsafe system. I mean, duh.
Stephen Bracket (The Lightning Thief, Buyer and Cellar) directs Be More Chill with a bit of uncertainty. The show could have used a stronger hand in shaping the comic business as well as the book itself, say from a John Rando (represented on Broadway now by Gettin’ the Band Back Together) or a Michael Mayer (ditto Head Over Heels), but they were clearly busy elsewhere. Chase Brock’s choreography continues the regrettable trend of show dance based on minute, hand-based, vogue-like movements, which hopefully will go the way of the Macarena.
For anyone out there who couldn’t score a ticket to Be More Chill, never fear. It seems pretty clear that the show will have some kind of commercial future, whether it’s a commercial Off-Broadway run or a Broadway transfer. With a ticket this hot, the producers would be foolish not to try. Unfortunately, that built-in demand will probably also mean that the creators won’t feel compelled to make any improvements. Why mess with success, right?
Be More Chill at The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, running through September 30, 2018. Book by Joe Tracz; music and lyrics by Joe Iconis; based on the novel by Ned Vizzini. Directed by Stephen Brackett; 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; musical direction by Emily Marshall; orchestrations by Charlie Rosen.
Cast: Gerard Canonico, Katlyn Carlson, Stephanie Hsu, Tiffany Mann, Lauren Marcus, Will Roland, George Salazar, Britton Smith, Jason Tam, and Jason SweetTooth William.
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Cover: Cast of ‘Be More Chill;’ photo: Maria Baranova.