Just being you — regardless of whether you’re a geek, Shakespeare lover, or guzzler of 1980s vintage soda — is cool. At least that’s the message of the social media sensation Be More Chill. In that spirit, I’ll resist the urge to compare Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz’s new musical to many of its Gen Z counterparts because those shows are a piece of FRRRRDEEEZLPUUUMP. Sorry about that. I had a Squip malfunction.
You see I’ve swallowed a microcomputer just like Jeremy (Will Roland) to write this review. This piece of advanced technology, dubbed The Squip (Jason Tam) by its Japanese manufacturer, helps the teenager navigate the treacherous halls of New Jersey’s Middleborough High and other socially awkward situations, including the courting of his crush Christine (Stephanie Hsu). Best friend Michael (George Salazar) is left in the dust as Jeremy squanders his bar mitzvah money for the coveted pill. But it doesn’t take an advanced computer engineer to realize that The Squip’s intentions are XXxZZOWWLEEEBl! Ouch! My frontal lobe has been paralyzed not to give spoilers.
Yes, Squip, I’m listening. Tell them about the actors. More than 100 million (mostly teen) superfans have downloaded the 2015 Two River Theater original cast recording and the cult-like following has continued to grow through social media. Fresh faces join this company, so if you’re one of the lucky ones who snagged tickets to this sold-out limited run, your internal sing-a-long should be prepared.
Most notable is Mr. Roland who jumped from a supporting role in the original Broadway company of Dear Evan Hansen to take on Be More Chill’s central character. He anchors the 10-member ensemble with a humorous, emotionally charged performance, and while his vocal delivery hits decibel-shattering levels thanks to Ryan Rumery’s sound design, it lacks the color and nuance of some of his co-stars, whereas Mr. Salazar’s Act II showstopper “Michael in the Bathroom” may be reason alone for the show’s viral success.
Unfortunately, as Jeremy’s romantic interest Christine, Ms. Hsu appears to be in a different show — one airing on the Disney Channel. ABORT ABORT! Sorry, Squip, I have to work this one out. The otherwise delightful actress, dressed in a cutesy Granny Smith apple green dress and carnation pink leggings appears wildly out of place, with little of the developing sensuality exuded by the character in author Ned Vizzini’s original novel. It’s hard to believe that super cool Jake (Britton Smith with a velvety voice and lanky swagger) would have much interest in her compared to his sexually charged classmates. DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME! ZAAAAPOW! — Yes, Mr. Tam. The charming actor, sporting a Liza Minnelli-styled Cruella de Vil wig, wrangles the non-human entity into a captivating plot-driving performance.
Director Stephen Brackett and choreographer Chase Brock work the sprightly ensemble, using most of the performers in multiple roles thanks to the creative ideations of costume designer Bobby Frederick Tilley II, including oddball shoppers at the local food court, among others. The crisp choreography delivers elements of hip-hop and popping while Mr. Brackett’s brisk pacing suits the material, though his stylistic inconsistencies could use a reboot.
Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, with the help of lighting designer Tyler Micoleau and projection designer Alex Basco Koch, also contribute to Be More Chill’s pulsating aesthetic. Much like Hamilton’s original run at The Public Theater, this production feels like it’s bursting at the seams and would benefit from a larger space. An extended run could also accommodate the throngs of teens (and their moms) descending upon The Pershing Square Signature Center like it’s the end of days. The screaming crowd, clutching show posters and brandishing a rainbow unicorn’s worth of dyed hair, can be found post-show in the lobby with the hopes of photo opps and autographs.
At its climax, the musical version of Be More Chill opts for a boisterous, zombie-filled sci-fi conclusion instead of the original plot, which has Jeremy de-activating The Squip to ask out Christine in the middle of the high school play — a benchmark moment in Mr. Vizzini’s book. In both versions, Jeremy’s fate is the same: the discovery of self. But how we get there is entirely different.
The Squip hopes to capitalize on Jeremy’s insecurities, saying, “A shared negative opinion is the fastest social bond. You want someone to like you…hate who they hate.” Choosing love — first of oneself — is a hard-fought battle, but one that Jeremy ultimately wins. And there is the lesson for all of us.
SQUIP: POWER DOWN
Be More Chill
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through September 23
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his non-Squip work at wexlerwrites.com.