Music and Lyrics by Joe Iconis
Book by Joe Tracz
Based on the Novel by Ned Vizzini
Directed by Stephen Brackett
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
It is difficult to separate “Be More Chill,” currently running The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, from the hype surrounding what has become a teenage cult musical since its 2015 run at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey. This hype has been heightened by a cast recording and an extensive marketing campaign. What is this musical about and how successful is its current incarnation?
High school junior Jeremy Heere (an awkward and amiable Will Rowland) would like his chill factor to be higher. He does not want to be “special,” but he just wants “to survive.” From his opening number “More Than Survive” it is difficult to diagnose the suburban New Jersey teen’s precise source of anxiety. Is it the slow-loading porn on his laptop, his dad’s (Jason SweetTooth Williams) disrespect for privacy, his fear of arriving at school “reeking?” His generalized anxiety seems no different than that of any teenager navigating their way through high school’s pitfalls. What is it Jeremy is dreading?
There is some bullying by classmates Rich Goranski (a menacing but broken Gerard Canonico) and Jake Dillinger (a high school awesomeness personified Britton Smith) but Jeremy has a solid friend in Michael Mell (a balanced and authentic George Salazar) with whom he shares an interest in video games and music. What Jeremy does not have, besides more chill, is his love interest Christine Canigula (a sweetly dorky Stephanie Hsu). There is also the “noise” created by the most popular girl in school Chloe Valentine (a crass and confident Katlyn Carlson), the second most popular Brooke Lohst (an insecure Lauren Marcus), and sidekick Jenna Rolan (a prying and intrusive Tiffany Mann).
Rather than finding some safe and relatively sane resolution to the angst of adolescence, Jeremy takes the same “gray oblong pill from Japan” that Rich swallowed to up his chill. The pill – the Squip – is a super-computer that tells Rich and Jeremy what to do and say to be cooler. Sci-Fi replaces socializing. The “voice” of the Squip is the aesthetic space-overcoat-clad Jason Tam.
Jeremy’s Squip-fueled journey from sad to glad to “normalcy” is told in scenes accompanied by loud pop-rock, techno-rock beats composed by Joe Iconis (with lyrics also by Iconis) and a serviceable book by Joe Tracz. Few of the songs are memorable. However, “Michael in the Bathroom” Michael’s existential lament after being ditched by the post-Squip more chill Jeremy is perhaps the most carefully written and the most sensitively delivered by George Salazar.
The cast is uniformly outstanding and fully committed to their roles. The playwright does not give us enough exposition about the protagonist Jeremy or his best friend Michael. Nor do the creators disclose what motivates Rich, Jake, or the popular female trio; therefore, their characters often struggle to transcend caricatures. Stephen Brackett’s direction and Chase Brock’s choreography move the action along at an appropriate pace and with welcomed energy. Beowulf Boritt’s expansive set, Bobby Frederick Tilley II’s stunning costumes, and Tyler Micoleau’s mood-driven lighting complement the musical’s settings.
There are no LGBTQ+ characters in “Be More Chill” and the only mentions of the sexual status of this disparate community are negative. When Jeremy decides to sign up to be in the after-school play – a post-apocalyptic zombie infused retelling of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – in order to spend time with his crush Christine – he worries that “it’s a sign-up sheet for getting called gay.” Predictably, and sadly, as soon as Jeremy signs, Rich calls out “Gay! Hahaha!” Rich taunts Jeremy about being gay, suggesting that he and Michael are “boyfriends.” The fact that Michael has lesbian parents (“mothers”) does not offset the musical’s lack of strong LGBTQ+ characters.
Joe Tracz’s book and Joe Iconis’s lyrics fail to address the depth of teenage angst and the tragic events that often erupt from deep despair and depression. The hype surrounding “Be More Chill,” including its extensive marketing campaign, and the musical itself cannot and should not be a substitute for the real work required to discover who one is and then grapple with how to achieve selfhood and self-acceptance in the midst of discrimination, bullying, and dehumanization. “Be More Chill” hopefully will not itself become the Squip that numbs the intensity of that process.