The first thing you’ll probably notice after arriving at Be More Chill is its logo — a block-lettered sigil splashed larger than life across the stage. And chances are good that you, as I did, will spot at least a few of them around the audience on sweatshirts and other merchandise, worn by the show’s already large group of devoted fans.
Be More Chill is hardly the first show to head to Broadway with a fan base in tow, but this new musical’s trajectory is particularly unique. The production — based on the 2004 young-adult novel by Ned Vizzini and adapted for the stage by Joe Iconis (music and lyrics) and Joe Tracz (book) — first opened at New Jersey’s Two River Theater in 2015 to less-than-stellar reviews, but found new life online when the cast recording went viral (reportedly boasting more than 250 million streams worldwide to date; it’s also the second-most-talked-about musical on Tumblr, behind another little show called Hamilton). An Off Broadway run followed this past summer, giving it wings to its current perch at New York’s Lyceum Theater.
The musical — or the album version of it, since that’s what’s been most accessible to the largest part of its audience thus far — is clearly speaking to people who are eager to hear it, but the show itself doesn’t live up to that social-media-sensation hype. On its surface, Be More Chill is drawn from a similar well as other recent teen-focused musicals like Dear Evan Hansen and Mean Girls, which all explore the struggles of navigating that often-fraught high school ecosystem. Chill’s protagonist is Jeremy (Dear Evan Hansen alum Will Roland), a self-described “loser, geek, or whatever” with a nonexistent sense of self-worth. He’s either teased or straight-up ignored at school, and at home his father (Jason SweetTooth Williams) can’t even be bothered to put on pants after Jeremy’s mother walked out on the family. He has one friend, Michael (George Salazar, a standout), a gamer-stoner type, and a crush on the drama club’s most passionate member, Christine (Stephanie Hsu), a free spirit who is refreshingly less concerned with being “cool” than most of the show’s other major players.
One day, a bully (Gerard Canonico) lets Jeremy in on a secret. He also used to be a loser, until he took a Squip: a sci-fi whatsit of a pill containing a powerful supercomputer that will implant in his brain and tell him all the right things to say and do, so he’ll become popular. It’s a literal chill pill — a modern-day twist on the devil on your shoulder or the My Fair Lady school of self-improvement. Jeremy, temped by that prospect and not swayed by Michael’s reservations, takes one too.
The Squip appears to us and Jeremy as a sentient bot channeling Matrix-era Keanu Reeves (Jason Tam takes this on, and nails it), offering varying degrees of suggestions/commands/threats intended to make him into the guy he thinks he wants to be. Of course, you won’t be shocked to hear that being cool is not everything it’s cracked up to be, and there are consequences to Jeremy’s quest to shed his former self (including dropping Michael). Nor will you be surprised to discover that other classmates share similar insecurities, regardless of their spots on the social food chain.
It’s fine that the show’s arc is predictable — frankly, it’d be far less interesting if Jeremy took the Squip and his life was perfect, the end. The problem is that those stakes still never feel high enough, and the show is the exact opposite of chill throughout. Everything bursts with a relentless OMG-level of intensity, from the songs to the costumes and choreography (Bobby Frederick Tilley II and Chase Brock, respectively) and characters that lean into every broad clique cliché. When everything is so heightened, it’s hard for anything to stand out.
As Jeremy, Roland shows he’s capable of more than the supporting-player part he played in Hansen. But the real star here is Salazar, whose breakout tune “Michael in the Bathroom” easily becomes the show’s highlight. It’s a passionate anthem about best-friend betrayal and party-induced social anxiety that nearly anyone can relate to, a feeling as specific as the song is cathartic. (There’s also a witty number from the show’s generally stronger Act 2 that spreads gossip via phone calls and an autocorrect snafu.)
Despite that perma-frenzied tone and the musical’s underwhelming book, it’s not surprising that Be More Chill has taken the journey it has. Iconis’ pop-rock songs are catchy and the show channels the angst and insecurities many young people experience, particularly in this social-media-driven age. I just wish there was more beneath all that neon, high-intensity surface. But then again, if you’re already one of the many, many fans of Be More Chill, my opinion probably isn’t going to matter anyway. B-