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A CurtainUp Review
Be More Chill
When Be More Chill landed in a prominent Off-Broadway venue last summer, the seats sold out before the first preview. Mainstream ticket buyers remarked that it seemed to have arrived out of nowhere. What the show's immediate success demonstrated is the internet's capacity to galvanize niche audiences through musical downloads and fan art. Now Be More Chill is on Broadway, with an upgrade in production values and the excellent Off-Broadway cast intact.
Like Dear Evan Hansen, which is playing on the other side of Broadway, Be More Chill offers an account, both touching and upbeat, of that universal downer — adolescence. It's based on a 2004 novel of the same title by the late Ned Vizzini. Relegated to the young-adult fiction shelves, Vizzini's book was, until recently, familiar only to a fanbase of very young people and the educators who cajole them to read books in this social-media age.
Jeremy Heere (Will Roland), protagonist of both the novel and the musical, is a Millennial Alexander Portnoy. Had Vizzini been writing in 1969, the year Philip Roth published Portnoy's Complaint, Be More Chill (which deals not only with depression but also casual and predatory sex, pornography, masturbation, voyeurism, and recreational drugs) would have been as explosive as Roth's book and banned in libraries across the country.
Jeremy is a self-described geek who yearns to be cool. He auditions for a school play, hoping to get acquainted with thespian Christine Canigula (Stephanie Hsu). But Jeremy's efforts are self-defeating since, as he knows, Christine has her eye on jock Jack Dillinger (Britton Smith).
When Jeremy learns from Rich Goranski (Gerard Canonico), one of the cool kids, that an ingestible, pill-sized micro-computer developed in Japan can coach one to "be more chill," he's certain this technological development will save him from his discontent. So Jeremy seeks out a shady character (Jason Sweettooth Williams) whom he's told can provide the illegal Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor or "Squip."
When activated, the Squip (a voice in Jeremy's head) informs him: "I exist only in your mind." On stage, though, this miraculous micro-computer is embodied by Jason Tam, the powerhouse lead singer of the boy band in last season's immersive Off-Broadway hit KPOP.
It doesn't take long for Jeremy to realize the Squip's tutelage has drawbacks. For instance, the Squip orders Jeremy to abandon his lifelong friendship with fellow nerd Michael Mell (George Salazar).
"Michael is a link to Jeremy 1.0," counsels the Squip. "To upgrade, you have to be willing to make sacrifices."
Tam is a suave, if oily, Mephistopheles. He swans about in extravagant costumes by Bobby Frederick Tilley II and a host of wigs by Dave Bova, executing Chase Brock's choreography with panache. Tam's performance becomes increasingly sinister — and increasingly compelling — as the story unfolds.
Tracz and Iconis have modified Vizzini's plot judiciously, simplifying it for dramatic purposes. They use music, such as "The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire)," to make the narrative more palatable. That song, a jumpy chorale reminiscent of the teenagers' "Telephone Hour" in Bye Bye Birdie, is an after-the-fact account of the casualties and destruction at a party with no adult supervision that lead to the story's climax. It's only one of several instances in which the authors of the musical have sanitized Vizzini's material, presumably because (as American Psycho demonstrated three seasons ago) mainstream theater audiences have limited tolerance for predatory sex and hard drugs set to music.
Despite those changes, the musical captures the sadness and agitation of Vizzini's characters; and Iconis makes the characters sing in ways reminiscent of Broadway's golden age yet appropriate to the source material. The result is a Millennial hybrid of Birdie and Damn Yankees, balancing the malaise of the post-9/11 era with the pep of the Broadway song book.
In the Off-Broadway production, director Stephen Brackett kept his 10 actors moving with the precision and velocity of a computer program. Beowulf Borritt's scenic design, enhanced by Alex Basco Koch's projections, made the stage appear to be a series of computer screens. The Broadway production is just as fast-paced, if not more so. And it has the same relentless pulse, though the sets and the constantly changing imagery are more elaborate and complex this time around.
The cast is a well-tuned ensemble, with Roland and Hsu appealingly off-beat as juvenile and ingenue. Salazar, noteworthy in the 2017 Off-Broadway production of The Lightning Thief, brings even more intensity to the role of Michael than he did Off-Broadway. With "Michael in the Bathroom," a hymn to teen angst and depression, Iconis created a star-making musical sequence akin to Mary Martin's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and John Raitt's "Soliloquy" in Carousel. "Michael in the Bathroom," which is bound to become a Broadway standard, will always be associated with Salazar and his invigorating performance of it.
Be More Chill has the brassy, old-Broadway sound of Burt Bacharach's Promises, Promises and the 1971 revisal of No, No, Nanette. Yet it's a musical for Millennials. Above all, it's an indicator of how the musical theater is evolving as the generation that has grown up on High School Musical and Glee becomes a significant part of the New York theater's consumer base.
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Be More Chill
Book by Joe Tracz
Music & lyrics by Joe Iconis
Based on the novel by Ned Vizzini
Directed by Stephen Brackett
Choreographed by Chase Brock
Cast: Will Roland (Jeremy Heere), Stephanie Hsu (Christine Canigula), George Salazar (Michael Mell), Jason Tam (The Squip), Gerard Canonico (Rich Goranski), Katlyn Carlson (Chloe Valentine),Tiffany Mann (Jenna Rolan), Lauren Marcus (Brooke Lohst), Britton Smith (Jake Dillinger), Jason SweetTooth Williams(Mr. Heere/Mr. Reyes/Scary Stockboy)
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
Wig Design & Make-Up Design by Dave Bova
Music orchestrated by Charlie Rosen
Vocal arrangements & Musical direction by Emily Marshall
Dance arrangements by Rob Berman
Production Stage Manager: Amanda Michaels
Vocal arrangements & Musical direction by Emily Marshall
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with 1 intermission Key Lyceum Theatre 149 West 45th Street From 2/13/19; opening 3/10/19
Reviewed by Charles Wright at March 7, 2019 press preview
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