REVIEW: “Be More Chill” Gets a Broadway Upgrade
As the pill-sized cyranoid super computer “from Japan” instructs its unsuspecting teenage host in the tween science-fiction, pop-rock sensation “Be More Chill”—you gotta get an upgrade.
Those words have taken on a prophetic meaning for this once-fledgling 2015 musical that was willed into production re-existence last summer on the strength of its international online fan base, and has now arrived at the historic Lyceum Theatre as the unmistakably subtitled “Be More Chill: The Broadway Musical”.
There is a welcomed irony in the fact that the newest, coolest (or should I say chill-est?) thing in musicals is now playing at the oldest continually operating theatre on Broadway.
After seeing the Off-Broadway iteration last summer (read my review), I opined that the show might fall flat in a Broadway house. On that score, I am happy to now be proven wrong, as the intimate orchestra of the Lyceum, typically a play house, is quite inviting for this rather intimate show (though I do still fear that frightful balcony!). Whether it can sustain an audience at a Broadway price point is a different question.
What is certain, though, is that “Be More Chill” received an upgrade in the transfer, including snazzier set (Beowulf Boritt), lighting (Tyler Micoleau), and costume (Bobby Frederick Tilley II) designs befitting its upgrade to “the Broadway musical”.
Rising star composer/lyricist Joe Iconis penned an additional song (“Sync Up”) to give content to the teenage supporting characters surrounding the central action, and tightened others, alongside bookwriter Joe Tracz whose script is pruned of unnecessary dialogue and less successful jokes. Regretfully, a handful of baffling and lazy “gay jokes” remain. In 2019, no less.
In sum, the narrative is clearer and the manic and zany camp tone tighter and more even, thanks no doubt to the benefit of additional time and skillful revision by director Stephen Brackett. As anyone who has interacted with technology knows, though, every upgrade is bound to bring a few new kinks, and retain some stubbornly persistent issues.
“Be More Chill” is a musical so yearning to be loved that it is hard not to join in the fun, especially given the bounty of earworms provided by Mr. Iconis’ catchy and tuneful score. At its core, though, this stage adaption of the eponymous 2004 young adult novel by author Ned Vizzini still centers around another unremarkable, self-pitying white boy whining about his geek status in an era where being a geek has never been cooler, and taking irresponsible steps to solve his low-stakes plight while endangering others and ultimately facing no consequences (paging Hansen, Evan).
Horny high school junior Jeremy Heere (Will Roland, “Dear Evan Hansen”) who, at age 17, has “wasted all eternity” and “earned a right to selfishly be all for one and one for me” swallows a pill-sized Japanese computer named a “Squip” (Jason Tam) that becomes an increasingly evil voice in his head while assuming a Keanu Reeves-like physical presence, controlling his actions and telling him how to, well, “be more chill”.
Along the way, Jeremy loses his fellow-geek best friend, gains new popular friends, nearly gets the girl, loses the girl, prepares to perfom 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.
Despite the high school setting, which feels near-exhaustingly omnipresent on Broadway these days—including critic’s picks “Dear Evan Hansen”, “Mean Girls”, and “The Prom”—“Be More Chill” is not your typical musical given its crude jokes and flights of sci-fi fancy. And that is the fun part.
It does, though, lack the same sophistication and polish of its high school peers, existing in a relentlessly hyperactive, broad (borderline cartoonish), and sophomoric state no doubt appealing to the angst and taste of its tween fan-base. Just how large that audience is, only time will tell.
On second viewing, the discordance between the show’s present day setting and nostalgic aural and aesthetic sensibilities that summon 1980s and 1990s fan culture rang louder. It makes sense given that the creators of the show grew up in this period, but, as an example, in the opening song alone, Jeremy rather anachronistically references Bob DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and George Clooney as the male icons who are top of mind, which is puzzling for a teenager born around 2002. Likewise, just why does the Squip take the form of Keanu Reeves, a decidedly 1990s Hollywood star?
Taking a step back, I still do not understand just what it is about Jeremy that makes him such an outcast, as distinct from any other high school boy who isn’t popular and awkwardly interacts with girls.
The character thankfully pops more in this revised Broadway production, but is still too two-dimensional to sufficiently carry the weight of the plot toward any place of emotional resonance. Indeed, the most impactful moment remains George Salazar’s act two showstopper “Michael in the Bathroom”, which should earn him a Tony nomination, despite his character also remaining too underdeveloped.
While Mr. Iconis’ lyrics can be cloyingly cute, baldly expositive, and often predictable, the music in this musical quite literally justifies its existence, and there’s a lot of interesting texture and instrumentation in Charlie Rosen’s smart orchestrations (including Broadway’s first theremin!). Unfortunately, the mostly-masked onstage band sounds muffled in the theatre, improperly balanced with the booming vocals coming from the cast. I look forward to the recording to fully appreciate the craft at hand.
As I suggested in my prior review, it is undeniably and infectiously exciting to see so many young people enthusiastic about a new musical. Short-form criticism like mine is ultimately a matter of taste, and while I enjoyed both my visits to “Be More Chill”—and do not begrudge anyone’s fandom—it is not a musical that speaks to me in any compelling way. And that’s just fine. I can, however, appreciate the upgrade.
Bottom Line: Tween science-fiction, pop-rock sensation “Be More Chill” makes the leap to Broadway and gets an upgrade in the process with a snazzier production design and revised score and script that give it a clearer narrative and a more even tone. Relentlessly hyperactive, broad, and sophomoric, it still lacks the sophistication, polish, and emotional resonance of its high school musical peers, but it is infectiously fun.