By the time the Joe Iconis (lyrics and music)-Joe Tracz (book) Be More Chill ends and the ovation screams die down, the Pershing Square Signature Center staff has positioned stanchions and strips in front of the wide corridor in the spacious Frank Gehry lobby from which the 10-member cast will emerge.
I’ve seen many productions at the Signature—this one isn’t a Signature presentation—featuring many with actors of particular note, but I’ve never seen the apparently necessary amenity. Taking it in, however, I knew that nothing I might say about Be More Chill (no matter how chill, or chilly, I get) will have any meaning for the already sell-out young audiences (some with abiding parents in two) jockeying for autographs.
My guess—I’m not alone in this—is that Be More Chill will move elsewhere after this relatively short run. Even to Broadway, if ticket prices there aren’t too prohibitive for the teenage population at which Iconis and Tracz are aiming. Perhaps high prices won’t be so off-putting in comparison to rock-concert fares. The predominantly young crowd with which I shared the musicalized Be More Chill experience reacted as if they were at a rock concert.
So on to my curmudgeonly adult response at a show I regarded as what might result were someone to update Clark Gesner’s You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown for 2018. The protagonist, Jeremy Heere, is a Charlie Brown type, who regards himself as a loser in need of winning attributes. Immediately, he’s positioned to earn empathy from other teens who—well, like Elphaba in Wicked—see themselves as outsiders, as pariahs in the making.
For a more recent antecedent, look to Tina Fey’s stage version of Mean Girls. Be More Chill could just as easily have been called Mean Boys for the story it tells of a suburban New Jersey lad, who, longing to join the high school in-crowd, forsakes his longtime pal—here he’s Michael Mell (George Salazar)—to pitch in with the haughtier self-appointed class favorites and who must learn the old lesson: Trust your instincts so’s to be yourself.
Since Be More Chill is adapted from Ned Vizzini’s young adult novel of the same name, the author is the one who came up with the method—I’m tempted to say meth—by which Jeremy achieves his misguided entrée to the (pun intended) upper class. It’s something called a “squip,” a pill-sized supercomputer Jeremy swallows at the suggestion of in-crowder Rich Goranski (Gerard Canonico), who’s already under the Squip influence.
Once Jeremy has ingested the eventually debilitating capsule, he’s guided by a materialized character, The Squip (Jason Tam). As this villain sinisterly coaxes Jeremy to disregard all scruples, he gets to wear a series of mostly white costumes by designer Bobby Frederick Tilley II.
It’s difficult not to read The Squip as the Everyman Drug Dealer lurking outside schools across the land. Surely that’s what Vizzini had in mind as he wrote his successful books and simultaneously battled his own literally depressing demons. (Vizzini took his life in 2013, at 32, for reasons likely embedded in his popular novel.)
Since Be More Chill struck me from start to finish as woefully derivative—the would-be romance between Jeremy and nice-girl-having-her-own problems Christine Canigula (Stephanie Hsu) among familiar plot devices—I was far from having the huge-arena-like fun so many ticket buyers around me were having.
More than that, I was recoiling from the Iconis score. (Notice the surname prominently billboards the word “icon.”) I hasten to say this was my major Be More Chill disappointment. I’ve been an Iconis fan for maybe a decade by now. I didn’t get to the 2015 Red Bank, New Jersey Two Rivers Theatre production, but I had long since heard, among other Iconis numbers not necessarily from this score, the hilarious and poignant “Michael in the Bathroom” lament. Perhaps that alone sold me on Iconis’ talent.
In the director Stephen Brackett/choreographer Chase Brock (he must have watched many MTV dance routines) version, Salazar delivers a tour de force “Michael in the Bathroom.” But for virtuosity, it’s not matched elsewhere by songs that require little more than belting, not to say bellowing. The hard-working troupe obliges.
It’s especially unfortunate to report that longtime Iconis player Jason Sweettooth Williams sings mostly as part of the ensemble. He appears as Jeremy’s Dad, mourning his deceased wife by wearing only a robe, undershirt and briefs. Williams also takes on two other roles, but at that, he remains underused.
Beowulf Boritt designed the adaptable set, which includes a few fake prosceniums on which designer Alex Basco Koch projects eye-blurring circuit-board graphics whenever The Squip appears. They represent, of course, the destructive supercomputer inside Jeremy’s head.
About Be More Chill, what’s left to be said is that for some it won’t be sufficiently chill, and for others it’ll be more than chill. Those enthusiasts would be the current population who—like one of the characters—still think “awesome” is a resonant adjective.
Be More Chill opened August 9, 2018, at the Pershing Square Signature Center and runs to September 30. Tickets and information: bemorechillmusical.com