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A CurtainUp Review
Be More Chill
Sensitive and vulnerable teenagers dealing with growing up in an unforgiving and often hostile world have been a dramatic staple and often depicted on stage with honesty, compassion and certainly humor — tracing the most obvious arc from Eugene O'Neil's Ah, Wilderness to Bye Bye Birdie and Grease , and up to the more recent Spring Awakening and Dear Evan Hansen .
To what extent, they and the many more not mentioned have been either totally forthright or fancifully accommodating to their intended target audience is a subject for an essay not a review. An almost new musical, Be More Chill, has joined the genre to contribute to the evolving conversation about what is really going on in the minds of teenagers maneuvering through a veritable minefield of choices and distractions.
It has taken three years for Be More Chill to find its way from its world premiere at Two River Theater in New Jersey to the Pershing Square Signature Center for a limited run, where its entire run is completely sold out. Preceded by an unprecedented wave of adoration and support (with the help of social media and a series of concerts), this cult sensation with songs and lyrics by Joe Iconis (NBC's Smash) and book by Joe Tracz ( The Lightning Thief ) is geared to withstand any serious resistance from adult criticism.
Judging by the reaction of the wildly enthusiastic teenagers who filled a good percentage of the seats, the experience was more than a simple recognition of characters they love and/or identify with from the late Ned Vizzini's popular young adult novel set in suburban New Jersey. It felt like a class reunion.
Just as becoming comfortable in your own skin and feeling good about who you are is about the most difficult thing to achieve when you are young (and even beyond), finding and establishing your niche among your peers is often as much a perilous journey. Jeremy (Will Roland) is the class standout nerd. Bullied by the boys and ignored by the girls, his desperation to be cool finds him taking a good amount of his bar mitzvah money to buy a purportedly amazing Japanese pill from a creepy pusher/Payless shoe store stock boy that is guaranteed to make him more popular or "more chill."
Jeremy is goaded by the word "gay" when shouted out in the boys room by Rich (Gerard Canonico), an already off-the-wall addict and bully. The pill is, in fact, a computer chip called a "squip" that also takes human form (Jason Tam) that only Jeremy can see. A little science fiction is ingested/integrated to set it apart from any traditional or more realistic dramatic device.
The Squip, as variously costumed to evoke the outer limits of outré couture by designer Bobby Frederick Tilley II, never leaves Jeremy's side instructing him what to say, how to behave and also how to dress. The entire company appears to be under the spell of the designer's completely unleashed imagination.
This metamorphosis or social "upgrading" happens gradually enough so that Jeremy, who insists "I don't want to be a hero," does embrace the acceptance and the recognition of his peers. Not so much from his best friend Michael (George Salazar) who is summarily ignored when Jeremy finds the nerve to initiate a relationship with the captivating Christine (Stephanie Hsu) by auditioning for the school's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream ; which has been given a post-apocalyptic update by the drama teacher (Jason Sweettooth Williams) with the fairies becoming zombies. William plays the creepy pusher as well as Jeremy's feckless stay-at-home father.
Roland defines the frustrated nerd who is duped into listening to voices in his head well. It would be nice to hear his real, if not exceptional, voice without it being electronically enhanced to the point of pain. Ms Hsu is full of vim and vigor as the flighty, love-conflicted Christine. Katlyn Carlson and Lauren Marcus are humorous clichés as the class sluts. Britton Smith makes a commendable impression as Jeremy's stuck-on-himself rival Jake.
Collectively the performers respond with zest and exuberance to director Stephen Brackett and to the modest demands of choreographer Chase Brock. A lengthy and labored Halloween bash, however, gets tiresome pretty quickly. The scene does give the ingratiating Salazar a chance to bemoan his lamentable state with the angst-driven "Michael in the Bathroom." More lamentable is "The Smart Phone Hour (Rich Set a Fire)" that evolves into an ear-splitting ensemble number though it did put the teenagers in the pews into a state of rapture.
For an audience that can make peace or at least a truce with the predictability of the plot and its resolve, the post rock score and lyrics that may be painful to some adult ears, this musical is smartly awash with teen-speak. Impressive projections designed by Alex Basco Koch and the superb lighting by Tyle Micoleau are bedazzling distractions, as is the modernist frame for the show designed by the always amazing Beowulf Boritt.
Even though though the target audience for Be More Chill is too young to vote in "regular" elections, they can be counted on to cast their vote for this musical as the hottest chill in town.
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Be More Chill
Music and Lyrics by Joe Iconis
Book by Joe Tracz
Directed by Stephen Brackett
Choreography by Chase Brock
Cast: Gerard Canonico (Rich Goranski), Katlyn Carlson (Chloe Valentine), Stephanie Hsu (Christine Canigula), Tiffany Mann (Jenna Rolan), Lauren Marcus (Brooke Lohst), Will Roland (Jeremy Heere), George Salazar (Michael Mell), Britton Smith (Jake Dillinger), Jason Tam (The Squip), Jason Sweettooth Williams (Jeremy's Dad/Mr. Reyes, Scary Stockboy)
Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design: Bobby Frederick II
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design: Ryan Rumery
Projection Design: Alex Basco Koch
Production Stage Manager: Amanda Michaels
Musical Direction and Vocal Arrangements: Emily Marshall
Music Supervision and Orchestrations: Charlie Rosen
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission.
The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street.
Tickets: $65.00 to $140.00
Performances: Tuesday - Friday at 7:30 pm; Saturday at 2 pm and 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm and 7:30 pm.
From 07/26/18 Opened 08/09/18 Ends 09/23/18
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 08/05/18
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