For those of you not hot-wired to social media and/or anyone over, say, eighteen , a previous production of Be More Chill was presented by New Jersey’s Two River Theater (who commissioned it) in 2015. Based on the 2004 novel by Ned Vizzini, its sci-fi premise harnesses the power of social media into unified control much like Star Trek Generation’s The Borg (a population of “drones” linked in a hive mind called “the Collective”). That the tale is set in an anxiety-ridden high school environment depicting the rule of popular kids, bullying, loyalty, authenticity, performance enhancing drugs, and depression, makes it easily relatable.
Still, the musical received tepid reviews and languished. When YouTube videos of selected numbers emerged, however, they went viral. In 2017, the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization made the piece available for schools and amateur companies. A Ghostlight recording that followed ran just behind Hamilton in online fandom. And here, three years later, is perhaps the flashiest production ever hosted by Pershing Square Signature Center.
Except for an isolated few, my companion and I seemed to be the oldest people in an audience that cheered as beloved characters appeared and were wildly vociferous after virtually every number. The run is sold out, but you can count on it to extend or reopen elsewhere.
Will Roland and George Salazar
Jeremy Heere (Will Roland) lives with a dad (Jason Sweettooth Williams, not making much of multiple roles) who, having unraveled after his wife left, never gets dressed and does little in the way of parenting. (“Put on your pants if you love someone,” a lyric later declares.) The boy and his best friend, Michael Mell (George Salazar), are clean cut dorks, outside any realm of acceptance let alone popularity. “I don’t wanna be special, I just wanna survive,” Jeremy sings. Not true of course. Everyone wants to be special.
Our hero pines after Christine Canigula (Stephanie Hsu) who’s refeshingly cute and spirited, rather than a sexy diva. Still, she’s out of his stuttering reach. Jeremy follows the girl into a drama class production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring (trendy) post-apocalyptic zombies instead of fairies. Christine feels most comfortable with a script. (Note the parallels.) Unfortunately for him, Jake Dillinger (Britton Smith) gets there first.
Stephanie Hsu and Company
Things pivot when raunchy, bad boy Rich Goranski (Gerard Canonico), experiences what looks like electric shock and turns from drawing penile graffiti to focus on Jeremy. “In freshman year I was just like you,” the cool guy says. Transformation is the result of downing Squip, a pill containing a quantum computer that travels to the brain and tells you what to do… “untested technology and not exactly legal…” in order to get everything you want.
The drug must be taken with green Mountain Dew (yes, there are colors). Its pricey black market runs out of the back of a Payless store at the mall. (Varied product placement, of which these are only a part, is so blatant, one hopes the show is getting seed money out of it.)
Jason Tam and Will Roland
Needless to say, Jeremy can’t resist. The connection kicks in (cue demonic possession shouts and physical jerking) and up pops a character called The Squip (Jason Tam) who only Jeremy can see. A rather nifty concept is that each person visualizes his own system software. His looks like Keanu Reeves. Later, Christine’s appears to be Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
“You wanna be more chill,” The Squip declares. “You mean cool?” our boy asks. “No, I mean chill.” Jeremy is fed dialogue by the operating system. His actions are controlled to make everyone admire him. Squip updates the student’s wardrobe and keeps him away from his straight-laced best friend. Manipulation is spot on. The hero gains traction.
Only once does Jeremy question his own behavior. “Just a little scared/If Christine likes me in the end/ Will I be able to pretend/I didn’t fail my real friend.” Success and approbation being irresistible, however, he becomes one of “them.” Sex is now available elsewhere. Both Brooke Lohst (Lauren Marcus) and Chloe Valentine (Katlyn Carlson) come on to him. (Have you noticed the names?) Even the object of his affection is bending.
An imaginatively envisioned Halloween party brings everything to a head. (Here’s where we hear/see the sympathetic “Michael in The Bathroom,” an incredibly popular video: I’m waiting it out ’til it’s time to leave/And picking at grout as I softly grieve/I’m just Michael you don’t know, Michael flyin’ solo/Michael in the bathroom by himself…
Will Roland, Jason Tam and Company
Rich suddenly acts as if in crazy withdrawal which reveals dangers of the “hive.” Still, Jeremy seems willing to dose the whole school in accordance with The Squip’s plan: “Let’s save all the pitiful children.”
Rock numbers are high energy and aptly juvenile, if musically unmemorable. Lyrics are idiomatically specific – Joe Iconis completely “gets” it, sometimes very clever, at others somewhat awkward and repetitive. None of this matters in the end. The sweep and relevancy of the piece is on target both with teens and the times.
Joe Tracz’s book makes sense, acting as ballast between fantastical events. Both writers handle compassion as well as they do youthful brutality. Be More Chill is neither Dear Evan Hansen deep or Mean Girls polished, but it’s quirkily entertaining and it works.
The cast doesn’t all look as young as it should (Katlyn Carlson especially seems wrong), but most hold their own.
Will Roland (Jeremy) and George Salazar (Michael) have good chemistry and clear, strong voices. Roland’s ingenuousness adds to credibility. We feel for both characters.
Stephanie Hsu (last seen in SpongeBob SquarePants) delivers a charming Christine.
Jason Tam’s Squip is effectively cocky and a tad robotic.
Director Stephen Brackett does a whiz bang job of keeping things moving, manifesting digital interference without losing humanity. He’s obviously a sci-fi fan.
Also featuring Tiffany Mann.
Set Designer Beowulf Boritt, Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau, and Projection Designer Alex Basco Koch have collaborated on an atmosphere where the line between binary and human becomes elusive. Middleborough High School is cheerfully recognizable. A barrage of visuals resembling video games and extensive circuitry (not all projected) epitomize the extent of insidious command.
Ryan Rumery’s Sound Design works subliminally as well as in highlighted instances. Rock music is clarion. Costumes by Bobby Frederick Tilley II range from appropriate to inspired. Choreography by Chase Brock is messy, but appealingly loose-limbed.
Photos by Maria Baranova
Opening: Will Roland and Company
Be More Chill
Joe Iconis- Music & Lyrics
Joe Tracz- Book
Stephen Brackett- Director
Chase Brock- Choreography
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through September 23, 2018