By Elyse Trevers
There’s a poetic justice about the success of “Be More Chill,” the musical that recently moved to the Lyceum Theater. When the show originally opened on May 30, 2015 at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J., it got mixed reviews and ran only six weeks. However, the 2015 cast recording received over 150 million streams online.
Capitalizing on its popularity, the show, with a new lead, opened this fall at the Signature Theater and sold-out its run. The same fans who loved the album bought tickets and some even brought their parents. Ignoring the critics, the fans have now given the musical new life. As a result, “Be More Chill,” based upon the 2004 cult YA book by Ned Vizzini, with music by Joe Iconis and book by Joe Tracz, is geared to become one of this season’s biggest hits.
The show focuses on Jeremy (Will Roland) a young man in high school who is “sick of being the loser, the geek, whatever.” Home isn’t much better since his mother left and his father seems unable to even get dressed. He does have a friend, Michael (George Salazar) who is his partner in video games and who has been his best friend throughout school. Michael assures Jeremy that, with technology, this is the best time to be a loser, but Michael’s words don’t offer him any comfort.
Jeremy has a serious crush on a pretty classmate, Christine (Stephanie Hsu) and he joins the drama club to be with her. She’s particularly interested in theater since the script tells the actor what to do and she knows how it will end. She is attracted to Jake, one of the popular kids, and that makes it even more important for Jeremy to somehow become popular.
So when Rich, a formerly nondescript now “cool” classmate, shares the secret of his popularity, Jeremy is intrigued. Despite a few misgivings, Jeremy spends the money and buys the SQUIP, a grey oblong quantum computer from Japan. It’s as small as a tic tac and is activated by green Mountain Dew. The SQUIP tells him what to do, what to say and how to behave. Jeremy notes that he doesn’t want “to be special-just wants to survive.” Along the way, Jeremy must make sacrifices and his SQUIP (personified by Jason Tam) changes him. Predictably there’s fallout along the way as Jeremy ignores his boyhood friend. In fact, the SQUIP blocks him from seeing Michael. This leads to one of the best numbers in the show, “Michael In the Bathroom,” sung plaintively by the endearing Salazar.
The show has great charm; even when the issues are sad and depressing, the songs manage to convey a more upbeat mood. By the end, when Jeremy’s dad begins to rally, he realizes that his son’s in trouble, and he sings “When you love someone, you must put your pants on for him.”
The show has typical, oft-repeated messages to convey, and one of the greatest is that of friendship, and the song “Two-Player Game “although overtly about video games, deals with friendship and being there for one another.” “Be More Chill” feels somewhat reminiscent of other shows about the stresses of youth. Like “Mean Girls” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” the show acknowledges and deals with the angst and anxieties of young people.
This show, however, is lighter, uses technology and is more creative. It also has a modern sci-fi context, illustrated by the drama teacher’s attempts to make the school play more relevant. He has revised Shakespeare’s’ work to become “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” to post-apocalypse and instead of fairies, there are zombies.
Perhaps best known for his songs for the TV series “Smash,” Iconis is the composer/lyricist of seven full length musicals. His music is bouncy, upbeat and creative. Songs that shouldn’t work, like Michael’s lament about friendship, are funny, yet touching. Then there’s “The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set A Fire).” In an attempt to get rid of his SQUIP, Rich winds up burning down Jake’s parents house. It’s actually tragic, yet the song, performed by Jenna (the powerful Tiffany Mann) with social media and texts, is quirky and entertaining. The cast is energetic and talented. Roland (“Dear Evan Hansen”) is sympathetic in his agony, and best friend Salazar is absolutely wonderful in his solo number. Actor Jason Sweettooth Williams plays both adult roles-that of the depressed father and the absurd drama teacher. Sadly and quite telling, both, perhaps representing all the adults in Jeremy’s life, are ridiculous buffoonish characters.
Musical history has proven that if a show can tap into high school angst and teenage misfits, it finds an appreciative audience. Even more importantly, as in the case of “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Spring Awakening” and even “Mean Girls,” it will earn a repeat audience. Shouldn’t a show about teens be reviewed by teens? “Be More Chill” is about teenagers trying to fit in and some of these same teenagers who have identified with Jeremy love the show and its themes. More importantly, these are some of the same fans who will see the show more than once and spread the word about it to their friends.
So for those of you who missed out on the early months of “Hamilton” or “Dear Evan Hansen” be advised and order your tickets early, especially if you live with a teenager or once were one.