REVIEW: “Be More Chill” is Teenage Musical Manna
Elvis has entered the building. Teenage girls are screaming and applauding across the auditorium.
Oh, wait. No. That’s Joe Iconis, a rockstar to musical theatre nerds of the high school variety, just heading to the light booth.
Haven’t heard of him? Don’t worry, you will.
Perhaps best known for penning songs for the short-lived TV series “Smash”, Mr. Iconis, age 36, is the composer/lyricist, and sometimes bookwriter, of seven full length musicals.
Casual theatregoers can be forgiven for their ignorance, for Mr. Iconis has yet to score a breakout that pierces the public consciousness. That, I suspect, is about to change with “Be More Chill”, an original musical that opened Off-Broadway tonight, vigorously willed into production re-existence on the strength of its international, online teenage fanbase.
Already sold out for its entire, initial nine-week run at the Pershing Square Signature Center’s 294-seat Irene Diamond Stage, “Be More Chill” flips the script for pop-rock musical mania, emerging a phenomenon before even opening in New York.
Commissioned by Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, it premiered there in 2015 to meager reviews and only ran six weeks; no producer picked it up, but the cast laid down an album capturing Mr. Iconis’s dynamic, earwormy songs. Then the Internet did what it does best.
“Be More Chill” became a viral sensation among teenagers across the country and around the world, its recording earning over 150 million streams to date, and live events featuring Mr. Iconis and associated personnel drawing fans from as far as Europe, Asia, and South America (and the need for security).
Just what is “Be More Chill” all about?
It’s based on a 2004 cult novel by Ned Vizzini in which a loser high school junior named Jeremy Heere (Will Roland) swallows a pill-sized Japanese computer named “Squip” (Jason Tam) that acts as a Cyranoid, telling its host how to, in real-time, well, be more chill—as in cool. Jeremy loses his fellow-geek best friend, gains new popular friends, nearly gets the girl, loses the girl, performs in his high school’s Zombie-infused production of “A Mid-Summer Night’s-Mare”, ends up with the girl, and in the process nearly destroys civilization—standard young adult fiction fare.
The musical adaptation, featuring a book by Joe Tracz, direction by Stephen Brackett, and choreography by Chase Brock, veers close to “Dear Evan Hansen” redux territory in its opening tableau—a high school boy’s bedroom, laptop perched on the bed, digital noises as pre-show soundtrack—but any fear of similarity is fast assuaged.
“Be More Chill” is a science-fiction, pop-rock, satirical allegory laced with elements of camp and sophomoric humor, lovingly playing on the teen comedy idiom of the 1980s and B-movie sci-fi flick genre of the 1950s and 60s (there’s a theremin in the band!). Often somewhat baffling to anyone in the audience who is not a fifteen year-old girl, this musical is for tweens and early teens, summoning a story and worldview wholly in sync with their adolescent neuroses and pent up emotions, and not too engaging for probably anyone else.
It exists not in any reality, but in a hyper-fantasized imaginationland. That’s fine, of course—remember, there is a musical about cats—but barely a single moment in this production is grounded in any emotional truth, the characters presented as such heightened stock that detachment springs from the get go, and is never bridged. Under Mr. Brackett’s direction, not much feels organic or authentic.
Just what is it about Jeremy that makes him such an outcast? He has a great best friend in Michael (George Salazar) and a caring, though embarrassingly pants-less and ennui-struck father (Jason SweetTooth Williams). Yes, he wants to date a girl, specifically fellow theatre nerd Christine (Stephanie Hsu). And he wants to have sex. But so what? So do most, er all, high school boys. It’s hard to build an entire play from a foundation of supreme loserdom that is never convincingly established from the beginning.
An early lyric about how signing up to do the school play will result in the injustice of the heterosexual Jeremy being called “gay” only highlights this point. You know who lives in fear of being labeled “gay” by their peers? Actual, closeted gay teenagers.
Near the end it is remarked, within a few lines of each other, that Jeremy has acne and stammers. Neither is true. Mr. Roland has pearly smooth skin. The opening lyric is a stammer, “C-C-C-C’mon, C-C-C-C’mon, Go Go” (as Jeremy waits for a porno to load on his laptop), but that’s the only memorable time the character stammers, and the entire cast joins him in singing that lyric later on in the song, suggesting it is not an affect or disability, but rather just a stylistic flourish on the part of Mr. Iconis.
In the end, Jeremy is just another angsty, unremarkable white boy who overreacts to his not-so-grave adversity and is so easily forgiven for selfish and reckless actions with potentially serious ramifications (see: Hansen, Evan).
His best-friend Michael’s much-celebrated, oft-performed Act II solo, “Michael in the Bathroom”, is compelling, especially when considered in a vacuum. In the context of the musical, though, it is confusing. In the limited stage time given to the character, we learn he maturely understands that high school isn’t real life, and that better days await him and Jeremy in college when their social status will better reflect their talents, interests, and personalities.
Then, in Act II, suddenly Michael is locked in a bathroom at a Halloween party, paralyzed by what his peers think of him. Huh? It’s a relatable situation, for sure, but reads false for what we know about the character.
The book “Be More Chill” is an epistolary of sorts, a data dump from “The Squip” before it is (spoiler alert!) destroyed by none other than a few drops of Red Mountain Dew. That framing device is dropped for the musical, but perhaps its retention would have better set the tone for the zany rollercoaster that ensues.
Act I surfs various tonal realities, but then Act II devolves into an unexpected tale of grotesque proportions—a black and blue comedy that is semi-absurdist but too cute for its own good (a mashup of “Little Shop of Horrors” and “The Breakfast Club”, as a production press kit posits).
When a new musical based on an obscure young adult fiction book from 2004 sells out the entirety of its run before even opening, and is greeted by thunderous applause and screaming teenagers, pay attention.
I find obsessive fan culture to be a major turn off, but such phenomenon can be separated from any fair assessment of piece of musical theatre. The task is harder, I must admit, when the culture itself is the impetus for a musical production’s very existence, and the emotional ownership of its followers almost overtakes the substance of their obsession.
“Be More Chill” is well-staged and performed, despite the aforementioned emotional hollowness of the experience. One performer on stage consistently stood out for the honesty of her line reads and her boffo vocals: Tiffany Mann. She’s one of several minor, frankly interchangeable characters whose Act II showstopper, “The Smartphone Hour”, is a clever neo-mod pastiche of “The Telephone Hour” from “Bye, Bye Birdie” (1960)—the original teenage musical. Producers of a future “Dreamgirls” revival should take note of Ms. Mann.
Mr. Roland has traded Jared Kleinman in “Dear Evan Hansen” for Jeremy Heere. His vocals are top-notch, his musical performance seemingly effortless, but whether the fault of the writing or the direction, his character is never convincingly real or engaging.
As the cast album’s near-unparalleled Internet popularity suggests, the songs of “Be More Chill” are stellar (I’ve been humming them since exiting the theatre), even if the lyrics are occasionally too pat. The script is loaded with corny jokes and hokey sentiments, but the plot offers a fun sci-fi twist on familiar conventions. I must say I enjoyed it. I am confused by all the mania surrounding it, but admit, it just simply isn’t a show for me. And that’s ok.
I am not here to steal anyone’s Christmas, and what I, or any critic, has to say about this show unlikely to have much impact. The fact is, having mobs of teenagers passionate about a musical is an objectively good thing. I hope their excitement and investment leads them to explore more musicals and plays, learn more theatre history, and develop a deeper appreciation for craft.
In the meantime, expect to hear about “Be More Chill” for some time to come, and do follow Elvis, I mean, Mr. Iconis, for he is a great talent who reports he is “working on a million new musicals”. I look forward to seeing them.
Bottom Line: “Be More Chill” is a new sci-fi, pop-rock, satirical allegory of a musical for tweens and early teens, and probably not anyone else. Based on a 2004 novel about a high school loser who swallows a pill-sized computer that makes him cool, the show is well-staged and performed, but remains an emotionally disengaging experience. Willed into production re-existence on the strength of its international, online teenage fanbase, expect to be hearing about it for some time to come.
“Be More Chill”
The Irene Diamond Stage
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: August 9, 2018
Final Performance: extended to September 30, 2018