By Stanford Friedman
Be More Chill was a viral sensation long before its Manhattan premiere, which is to say that it is probably the most critic-proof musical ever to be mounted Off-Broadway. The only remaining tickets are the few made available through their digital lottery and the box office cancellation line. Fans are flying in from across the country, and the original cast recording from the show’s 2015 debut, at New Jersey’s Two River Theater, has been streamed 150 million times, after a surge of teen enthusiasm broke loose on YouTube and across social media. Tumblr ranks it as the second most talked-about musical on their site, following Hamilton.
Coincidentally, as it turns out, the show is a blast.
Based on the late Ned Vizzini’s 2004 novel of adolescent angst amid cyber weirdness, and rocked to life by a couple of Joes (score by Mr. Iconis, book by Mr. Tracz), the work is catnip for theater kids and a dynamic dose of escapism for their parents.
The storyline delivers a message of self-esteem without being preachy, primarily by barely knowing what it is talking about, and doing so with extreme confidence. Taking attendance, there is Jeremy (Will Roland) the high school loser and Michael (George Salazar) his stoner friend. Jeremy has a mad crush on sweet Christine (Stephanie Hsu) but Jake (Britton Smith), the cool kid, is having better luck with her. Also in their orbit are the loose girls Chloe and Brooke (Katlyn Carlson and Lauren Marcus), their hip pal Jenna (Tiffany Mann) and Rich (Gerard Canonico), a nice guy gone astray. The status quo of this brat pack goes haywire when Jeremy shells out his Bar Mitzvah money for a “Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor,” or Squip, by its street name. Kind of a drug and kind of a pill-sized computer, kind of evil and kind of life-affirming, when swallowed with Mountain Dew, the Squip works its mind altering magic on Jeremy, giving him the wherewithal to rise above his lowly status. The pill is personified by a Matrix-esque Keanu Reeves type (Jason Tam) who leads Jeremy away from online porn and toward a better tomorrow where the strongest voice in his head is his own.
Though these kids are archetypes, they have surprising depth. Jeremy doesn’t want it all, or, as he sings, “I’ll never be a Rob DeNiro/For me, Joe Pesci is fine.” Christine is an idolized love interest who, nonetheless, is extremely approachable, and a bit of a Shakespeare nerd. Jake is swaggering but likable; he can’t help it if he’s tall and handsome. Michael, Rich, Jenna and Brooke are all sensitive. The two adult authority figures, Jeremy’s Dad and drama teacher Mr. Reyes (both played by Jason SweetTooth Williams) are touchingly fallible. Only the mean cheerleader, Chloe, is underwritten and one-dimensional. Though Ms. Carlson nails what she has been given, it’s the beauty mark on an otherwise ideal face.
In a production boasting many strengths, the greatest is Mr. Iconis’s music. With more hooks than a fishermen’s convention, the music grabs you and does not let you go. The central characters have individual themes: a heavenly hymn for Christie, a meek call to arms for Jeremy, dark chords for the Squip, and a slutty come-on for Chloe and Brooke. These melodies repeat, variate and peek out from the underscoring until, Squip-like, they lodge inside your brain leaving you humming multiple catchy tunes for days to come. It doesn’t hurt that the six-piece band is on fire and that the cast, many of whom were also in the Two River Theater staging, are vocal acrobats. As Jeremy, Mr. Roland tackles a lengthy and demanding song list, including an epic end of Act I soliloquy, and makes it look effortless. Ms. Marcus sings the seductive “Do You Wanna Ride?” with a suggestiveness that could push a boy through puberty. The 11 o’clock number goes to Mr. Salazar. With his Michael left abandoned at a house party, he achingly unleashes “Michael In the Bathroom” in a melancholy style to which any young adult could immediately relate. The Pershing Square Signature Center should take an insurance policy out against Ms. Mann. Having blown up one of their theaters in last season’s Jerry Springer – The Opera, she now tears the roof off another, as Jenna, with some belting that blows you back into your seat. She especially shines in “The Smartphone Hour,” a shoutout to “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie, proving that some things, such as gossip-spreading, never change.
The creative team, supported by a large group of producers, have spent often and spent well to make the night shine. Costumes, by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, are a standout both for the sheer number of them (Holy cow!) and their vibrancy. Alex Basco Koch’s projections paired with Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design provide an effective mix of high school hallway and hallucinatory hi-tech. And veteran director Stephen Brackett makes only one mistake: not providing enough applause breaks for an audience that is more than eager to react.
Be More Chill – Music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, book by Joe Tracz; directed by Stephen Brackett.
WITH: Gerard Canonico (Rich), Katlyn Carlson (Chloe), Stephanie Hsu (Christine), Tiffany Mann (Jenna), Lauren Marcus (Brooke), Will Roland (Jeremy), George Salazar (Michael), Britton Smith (Jake), Jason Tam (The Squip) and Jason SweetTooth Williams (Jeremy’s Dad/Mr. Reyes/Scary Stockboy).
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, production stage management by Amanda Michaels. The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd St., (212) 279-4200, www.BeMoreChillMusical.com. Through September 23. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes