With the official premiere of Be More Chill on Sunday, the musical youth quake continues apace. Another opening, another row ... of high school lockers. This new Broadway production is the latest orgy of adolescent angst, a theme already being explored in Dear Evan Hansen, The Prom and Mean Girls.
Adapted from Ned Vizzini’s novel by author Joe Tracz and songwriter Joe Iconis, Be More Chill lands at the Lyceum Theatre after a run four years ago at Two River Theater in New Jersey and one last summer at Signature Center. The musical arrives an undisputed Internet juggernaut. The 2015 cast album has been streamed more than a quarter of a billion times. That said, on stage – where success is about alchemy, not numbers – the show is simply so-so. It’s loud, lively and mostly lacking in surprises.
The action spins around Jeremy (Will Roland), a teen “loser, geek, whatever,” as he sings in a big solo. His true-blue pal Michael (George Salazar) is a nerdy old-school gamer with a Pac-Man tattoo on his arm to prove it. Together, they’re a dynamic, if outcast, duo.
Jeremy has the hots for Christine (Stephanie Hsu), a theater freak, but can’t approach her. Rich (Gerard Canonico), a casual bully, gives Jeremy a solution: a pill from Japan, aka The Squip, which offers instant coolness in a capsule. The Squip (Jason Tam) manifests as a guide only Jeremy sees and hears. Just like that, Jeremy is, well, more chill.
But magic bullets ricochet and backfire. Relationships and houses go down in flames – and eventually, in a riff on the superior Little Shop of Horrors, the Squip reveals a dark side.
The question at the musical’s core is provocative. If a pill could change your life, would you take it? The answer the show offers is, alas, pedestrian. After he takes the pill, Jeremy just goes to a Halloween party, an excuse for over-the-top costumes, horny high schoolers and more of the same-old, same-old. The show cries out for more sci-fi elements teased at the top of the show with the eerie wail of a theremin.
Songs by Iconis, whose credits include Smash, get points for quirky subjects and self-aware wordplay. But they’re also long-winded and repetitive. Christine’s “I Love Play Rehearsal” turns a simple declarative thought into tedious geeksplaining. The weird and wistful “Michael in the Bathroom,” about getting kicked to the curb, goes from goofy-tender to outstaying its welcome. There’s a difference between selling a song and sledgehammering it. The show’s creators and director Stephen Brackett don’t seem to notice that.
Through it all, the actors are game and winning as they channel inner teens, while the terrific scenic and lighting designs lend loads of atmosphere and polish. In the end, Be More Chill reminds that friendship is a mighty force. That’s not groundbreaking like a high-tech pill, but it’s easy enough to swallow.