Can a post-millennial sci-fi musical that made its way to Broadway on the strength of YouTube, Tumblr, and Spotify drown out the overwhelming cyber-buzz and make a name for itself in the musical-theater history books? The Joe Iconis–scored, Joe Tracz–scripted Be More Chill may already be beloved by a couple hundred million fans—if we’re going by the original cast album streaming count (admittedly a very inaccurate estimation)—but is the ultra-caffeinated show that just opened at the Lyceum Theatre as amazing as the blogs, GIFs, and memes would have you believe?
If you ask the fans—some of whom you’ll spot in the audience wearing homages to their favorite characters, including the nerdy hero Jeremy (played by Dear Evan Hansen alum Will Roland), his drama-club crush Christine (Stephanie Hsu), and his outcast-and-proud Pac-Man partner Michael (George Salazar)—the answer is an unqualified yes.
It’s easy to see why they’re so enamored of the diaries-of-a-teenage-misfit story, which is based on a 2004 young adult novel by the late Ned Vizzini: To save himself from eternal geekdom, Jeremy ingests a $400 Japanese-made mind-controlling computerized pill called a Squip, which comes to life in fabulous fashion—think Keanu Reeves in The Matrix (played by Jason Tam)—and acts as the Cyrano to Jeremy’s Rostand.
Suddenly, Jeremy is chatting up cool girl Brooke (Lauren Marcus), shopping for faux-retro fast fashion in Forever 21, and going to Halloween house parties where everyone wears inappropriately sexy costumes. (BTW, if they’re not selling Be More Chill merch around the corner at the F21 in Times Square, they’re missing a major marketing opportunity.) But before you can say Little Shop of Horrors, the Squip gets out of control, and it’s up to Jeremy—and a glug of 30-year-old Mountain Dew Red—to save the world. Or at least the world as he knows it: his suburban New Jersey high school.
Iconis’ tunes, which have earned him a major online following, are character-driven and catchy, especially Christine’s quirkily sweet “I Love Play Rehearsal,” destined to become an anthem for high school actors everywhere; Jeremy and Michael’s “Two-Player Game,” an ode to vintage videogames and friendship (“Guys like us are cool in college”) that sounds like it was orchestrated in an arcade in the ’80s; the party-anxiety song “Michael in the Bathroom,” to which Salazar brings so much heart; and Jeremy’s six-minute throat-testing “Loser Geek Whatever,” which makes Dear Evan Hansen’s “Waving Through a Window” sound like a vocal warm-up.
But a lot of Iconis’ songs, and Vizzini’s story, gets lost in the chaos at the Lyceum. Director Stephen Brackett, who staged the show last year off-Broadway and in its 2015 premiere at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J., isn’t much for subtlety or soft moments. Roland, ideally cast in so many ways, is pushing too hard—vocally and otherwise. And the usually unimpeachable sound designer Ryan Rumery has turned everything up to 11.
What I liked—actually, loved—about Be More Chill more than anything is its potential. The show can so easily be produced in a high school or college on a shoestring budget. It could be staged in a black box. The cast could shop their own closets for the costumes (no offense to Bobby Frederick Tilley II’s work here, which is a spot-on celebration of neon). The songs would sound just as good without all the amplification. Perhaps—no, definitely—even better.
Be More Chill opened March 10, 2019, at the Lyceum Theatre. Tickets and information: bemorechillmusical.com