The buzz around Be More Chill was that it would topple Dear Evan Hansen as the new ‘it’ musical for Millennials and Generation Z. It won’t. Instead, the entertaining new musical will be remembered for finally bringing edgy, accomplished downtown composer and lyricist Joe Iconis to Broadway all while being plagued by Joe Tracz’s uneven book and Stephen Brackett’s inconsistent direction. These elements collide to ensure that Be More Chill cannot decide if it wants to be a campy, cult classic or a hard-hitting teenage drama.
The musical is based on Ned Vizzini’s 2004 young adult novel by the same title, which pairs sci-fi with the raunchy humor of teen sex comedies. Taking the material from the page to the stage, Tracz and Iconis have slightly neutered it and built up the B-movie elements of the tale. This is all the more apparent from the moment that the overture opens with sounds spun from a Theremin, which is blatantly spotlit while being played from upstage center.
Another notable change from the novel is the inclusion of visibly queer characters. Bobby Frederick Tilley II’s costume design puts visual hints in the form of a pride flag on the left arm of both Michael’s maroon sweatshirt and red jacket. Then, George Salazar’s dynamic characterization paints Michael as an openly gay high school junior who carefully navigates his platonic best friendship with heterosexual Jeremy Heere. This keenly subtle inclusion of a gay character is fantastic but gets blindsided by the revelation of another character’s bisexuality through an off-the-cuff coming out used as the butt of a couple jokes. So, even in 2019, the socially progressive Broadway arena still plays into the damaging tropes of bisexuality being a joke.
Tackling the leading role of Jeremy, Will Roland dexterously traverses his character’s arch. He believably creates a likeable loser/geek who takes a pill that implants a super computer – or squip – into his brain that teaches him how to be one of the cool kids. Despite the flights into total fantasy, Roland plays his role in an almost realistic way. Opposite him, Stephanie Hsu’s Christine Canigula is a larger-than-life caricature of the overzealous, effervescing theatre nerd. Under Brackett’s direction, if Hsu’s Christine dips even a toe into the realm of realism, it is so fleeting it is entirely missed. Conversely, Salazar’s Michael only slightly hovers outside the realm of believability, making him seem rooted in reality. Without a doubt, this is why Salazar’s Act II solo, “Michael in the Bathroom” has been an instant audience favorite since the musical premiered at Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ.
Jason Tam as The Squip is deliciously sinister. Tam’s impersonation of Keanu Reeves for the spoken dialogue is uncanny and acutely charming, masking his danger with a veneer of amiability. Katlyn Carlson’s vapid, popular girl Chole Valentine is fun to witness. Lauren Marcus makes an old-fashioned star-turn as the ditzy Brooke Lohst, capably stealing scenes and offering a full-bodied, sensuous belt on songs like “Do You Wanna Ride?”
Gerard Canonico’s perfectly plays troubled, rough-around-the-edges quasi-bully with a stunning rocker wail Rich Goranski. Tiffany Mann’s gossipy Jenna Rolan is a delight, making the Bye, Bye Birdie reminiscent “The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire)” a highlight of the production. Britton Smith makes interesting the prototypical Jake Dillinger, who is the suave, cool kid with secret issues. As a Mr. Heere/Mr. Reyes/Scary Stockboy, Jason SweetTooth Williams creates a nice array of awkwardly hilarious adults.
Leaning on the vocabulary of classic musicals and even videogames, Iconis has crafted a score that deftly utilizes repeated motifs throughout the show. This is something that Chase Brock’s choreography attends to, using repetitious tutting to create a visually cool language for the show. This dazzling series of movements is then passed from one character to another. Outside of Iconis’ memorable, catchy score, Brock’s dance vocabulary for Be More Chill is absolutely one of the production’s strongest creative assets.
Be More Chill is currently running on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre. Visit BeMoreChillMusical.com for tickets and more information.