An exuberant new musical about a nerdy high school kid who becomes popular beyond his wildest dreams, Be More Chill is the cheerful flip side of Dear Evan Hansen.
Opening on Sunday at the Lyceum Theatre, the show is a bright and boisterous entertainment populated by a delightful ensemble and driven by propulsive music and some frequently frenzied dancing. Neatly shaped along fairly traditional musical comedy lines by book writer Joe Tracz and songwriter Joe Iconis, Be More Chill delivers a cartoon tuner that’s as classic as Faust and twice as funny.
Drawn from Ned Vizzini’s novel, the story is straightforward: Jeremy is sharply aware that he is totally uncool at his suburban New Jersey school. Then Jeremy learns about something called a squip. Described as “some top secret can’t even look it up on the internet” pill manufactured in Japan, it implants a super-computer in the brain that is programmed to help people to be, well, to be more chill.
Although warned that this item is untested technology, Jeremy ingests it. Thus embedded, The Squip pops up on stage, unseen by the other characters, as a super-suave, silvery figure who resembles a young Keanu Reeves. Delivering electronic shocks to correct Jeremy’s posture and to fix his vision so that he can shed his glasses as well as overlook his nerdy buddy Michael, the omniscient Squip upgrades Jeremy into a smooth player with whom everybody soon wants to be besties.
The musical’s second act, of course, leads to complications as The Squip motivates Jeremy into dubious behavior.
Throw in a Halloween party that gets out of hand, a school play that mashes up A Midsummer Night’s Dream with zombies, and a cyborg plan for world domination, and you’ve got a clever new musical that honors several predecessors. As well as Dear Evan Hansen, the show invokes Little Shop of Horrors, in that a miraculous force grows evil; Mean Girls, in that cool kids shun others to rule their school; and in one frenetic number, there is a clever homage to 1960’s Bye Bye Birdie as youngsters today trade rumors exponentially during “The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire).”
Breezy and broad as Be More Chill gets, it occasionally underscores the angst that adolescents feel. During one song, all of the characters echo the phrase, “I’m tired of being the person that everyone thinks I am,” which essentially is the show’s theme. Another number, “Michael in the Bathroom,” given a woeful/funny rendition by George Salazar, sorrowfully reflects being the loneliest soul at a party. Such touching moments offer graceful notes within Iconis’ hip and high-spirited score. Charlie Rosen’s orchestrations deck it out with some witty sci-fi flourishes, including the eerie warbling of a theremin.
Sophisticated Broadway customers may be wearying of high school scenarios, but the only significant problem about Be More Chill is that it’s too much of a good thing: Clocking in at around 2:30, the show could easily be trimmed back by 20 minutes without sacrificing any vital material. Let’s note, too, that the sound design’s decibel level is cranked up so beyond loud that one fears the Lyceum’s 116 year-old plaster decor might crumble. Anyone with sensitive ears should book seats towards the back of the house.
If one’s hearing may be jeopardized, this production is well worth seeing. Stephen Brackett, the director, has put together an extremely energetic, extremely flashy attraction that visually embodies its youthful viewpoint. Beowulf Boritt’s shiny, minimalist setting of various frames coalesces with Alex Basco Koch’s nearly ceaselessly moving projections and Tyler Micoleau’s multi-hued lighting to create the somewhat ADD-inspired atmospherics. Likewise, choreographer Chase Brock’s often amusing dances tend towards hyperactive movement. These elements are especially effective in delivering the show’s climax, which invokes a madhouse video game.
Sporting a wardrobe of colorful, ultra-trendy clothes designed by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, a dandy bunch of youthful looking performers is a pleasure to watch.
Last seen on Broadway as Evan Hansen’s smartass ally, Will Roland nicely traces Jeremy’s arc as a loser desperate to become an insider to an insider desperate to get back to the way he was. Stephanie Hsu as an overly dramatic theater geek, Gerard Canonico as a school bully who goes bonkers, and Tiffany Mann as a gossip girl with awesome vocal powers, are standouts, along with George Salazar’s retro-minded Michael. And Jason Tam gives The Squip a coolly insinuating presence that makes this extraordinary personage easy to swallow.
Be More Chill opened March 10, 2019, at the Lyceum Theatre. Tickets and information: bemorechillmusical.com