“Welcome to the human social ritual known as theater,” intones the pre-recorded voice before the curtain rises on Be More Chill. But theater is just one of the social rituals featured in this new musical that skewers and satirizes societal norms and rituals in an ambitiously entertaining, but slightly disappointing, take.
Opening Off-Broadway after a debut at New Jersey’s Two River Theater in 2015, Be More Chill attracted nation-wide attention thanks to a social media frenzy following the release of its original cast album. Adapted from Ned Vizzini’s young adult novel, with a score by Joe Iconis and a book by Joe Tracz, the musical, directed by Stephen Brackett, has tapped into the ubiquitous appeal of anxious and isolated teenagers who don’t fit in and feel the need to sing about it – a repertoire that includes Dear Evan Hansen, Spring Awakening, Heathers and Mean Girls – loudly.
Perhaps the most anxious and loud of all is Jeremy, played with appealing angst by Will Roland, whom the audience meets while lamenting about the length of time it takes for porn to load onto his laptop. Reeling from his mother’s recent departure from their family, while his father (Jason SweetTooth Williams) is so grief-stricken he is unable to put on pants, Jeremy is an easy target for high school bullies. Resigned to an adolescence of torment, he pines from afar for his classmate Christine (Stephanie Hsu) while playing video games with his best friend Michael (George Salazar).
Everything changes for Jeremy when one of the aforementioned bullies shares the secret to his own social success – the Squib. A pill, made in Japan, implants a super-computer in the user’s brain that will instruct him how to be cool. Personified by Jason Tam, perfectly emulating Matrix star Keanu Reeves, this detached, chilly-voiced being offers moment-by-moment instructions on how to interact, all the while helpfully informing Jeremy in song, “Everything About You Is Terrible.”
But, as any teen movie, or play, or book, will tell you, popularity comes with a price tag, and this one involves Jeremy hurting both his father and his best friend. The Squib is so thorough, it blocks his optic nerve, leaving him physically unable to see the decidedly un-cool Michael in the hallways at school. The more important and powerful the Squib becomes, the more danger Jeremy is in – even if he refuses to acknowledge it. Also loyal to the formula of teen entertainment is the big social event where all conflicts culminate – in this case, the school’s Drama Club production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (re-worked to take place in a post-apocalyptic setting). In a happy variation from the standard teen rom-com, Christine is not the embodiment of an impossible physical ideal, but a more complex and relatable peer of Jeremy’s.
Performed on Beowulf Boritt’s set, with Alex Basco Koch’s video-game invoking projections, Be More Chill is absurd, yes, but its absurdity is at times balanced by the its sincerity and some truly amusing moments of self-referential humor. As Jeremy attempts to woo Christine by signing up for the school play, she bursts into song espousing her love for play rehearsal – a sentiment no doubt shared by the writing team, who pay homage to many other musicals throughout the production. A frenzied group smartphone conversation not only brings Bye Bye Birdie into the 21st century as a group of millennials text and tweet about last night’s act of arson, it also demonstrates how, through social media, people easily appropriate tragedies for their own image. And the youthful cast, which is notably more diverse than many others seen this fall, exudes energy to spare.
But the most moving moment of the show comes at an ill-fated Halloween party in which Michael, after attempting to warn Jeremy of the Squib’ dangers, suffers a full-fledged panic attack. “Michael in the Bathroom,” a piercing portrayal of building anxiety at social events, effectively depicts in both the orchestrations and lyrics. And Salazar’s performance, which up until then had established Michael as content and confident that life would improve once he got to college, is an undeniable tour de force.
But the music’s emotional poignancy serves as a detriment to the show, as it only highlights the book’s immaturity and lack of clarity. Be More Chill clearly serves as a metaphor for social media, and the danger of nonstop connection and groupthink among social communities. When the Squib threatens to implant within Jeremy’s entire school, declaring, “It’s useless resisting” and reminding him that those who tried to fight the Squib were institutionalized, the parallels drawn with social media addiction are apparent.
The show’s conclusion is muddled at best, and more clarity is needed for the audiences that will flock to the show after its Broadway transfer takes place. But the charm of Be More Chill and its earnest, sincere love for musical theater, is appealing and, evidenced by the screaming hordes of teens in the Off-Broadway audience, undeniable.