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Theatre in Review: Be More Chill (Pershing Square Signature Center)

Tiffany Mann, Jason Tam, Will Roland. Photo: Maria Baranova

There's a genuine grass-roots musical-theatre event happening Off Broadway, and the big questions about Be More Chill are if it can transition from a boutique hit to a breakout success -- and if it deserves to do so. Neither question can be easily answered, although the good news is that the Pershing Square Signature Center's Irene Diamond Stage is loaded with young talent, even if one sometimes wonders about the uses to which it is being put.

Be More Chill constitutes the official commercial debut of book writer Joe Tracz and composer/lyricist Joe Iconis, both of whom have labored in the Off Off Broadway and children's theatre sectors. (Tracz is also a writer/producer on Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events.) Iconis has long been something of a best-kept secret, quietly building a following through cabaret appearances and recorded song collections. As Elisabeth Vincentelli noted in the Times a few months ago, Be More Chill was supposed to be this team's breakthrough moment when it debuted in 2015 at Two River Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey; instead, thanks to less-than-stellar reviews, the road to New York ended west of the Hudson. The show was recorded, however, and has been streamed more than one hundred million times, a number that many far-better-known shows might envy -- and, in truth, the initial run of Be More Chill is all but sold-out. At the Signature the other night, evidence of success abounded: The theatre was jammed with twentysomethings abuzz with excitement. Many of the principals received entrance applause. During intermission and after the show, there were lines of eager fans waiting to get an autograph and a selfie with Iconis.

Given its slick, ready-for-Broadway design and the small army of producers poised above the title, it seems certain that everyone involved envisions a transfer to plusher digs. Arguably, the time since its original production has been well spent, but when a show's development process lags, the world doesn't stand still, and one can legitimately wonder if Be More Chill hasn't missed its moment. Even if not, can this peppy, poppy new musical -- which delivers, with the regularity of a Pez dispenser, bursts of teen-angst power pop -- reach beyond a core audience of under-thirties still scarred by the burning humiliations of high school?

Whatever you think of Be More Chill, which is derived from a novel by the late Ned Vizzini, you'll have to admit that it has a kookily original premise. Jeremy, the put-upon hero, is a socially awkward high school junior for whom each day is another social gauntlet; he gets no respite at home, from which his mother has fled, leaving him with his depressed father, who can't be bothered to get out of his bathrobe. Fed up with his outcast state, Jeremy ingests a "squip," a black-market pill from Japan that amounts to swallowing a supercomputer. With all that added brain bandwidth, Jeremy turns himself into a power player, wooing the ladies and becoming a social arbiter. In truth, he is merely following orders from The Squip, who, as personified by the actor Jason Tam, ruthlessly guides Jeremy's rise, basically turning him into a first-class phony. (As The Squip explains it, "Human social activity is governed by rules and I have the processing capacity to understand those rules. And pass them on to you.") For one thing, Jeremy must drop his lifelong best friend (and fellow nerd), Michael. For another, he is made to lie and cheat his way to Christine, the quirky school-play queen for whom he yearns.

Tracz, who also supplied the cheeky, enjoyable book for Off Broadway's The Lightning Thief, once again shows his sure hand for construction; even when the plot veers from teen troubles toward something rather like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he maintains a consistent tone. (One wonders if a story in which the hero takes a pill that suppresses his normal emotions and gives him a more socially acceptable personality might not be strangely familiar to an audience of young adults, many of whom may have been fed Ritalin and other nostrums from an early age.) Iconis' songs draw on contemporary pop-rock styles -- think of acts like A Great Big World or Owl City -- while maintaining a distinctive profile, and his lyrics are often disarmingly witty; I'm especially fond of the following admission from Jeremy: "I don't want to be a hero/Just wanna stay in the line/I'll be a Rob DeNiro/For me, Joe Pesci is fine." Jeremy and Michael have a winning duet, "Two-Player Game," in which, trying to win at something called Apocalypse of the Damned, they imagine they'll be "cool in college." Other standouts in the score include the eponymous "Michael in the Bathroom," delivered while hiding out at a party to which hasn't been invited, and "The Smartphone Hour," a conscious homage to Bye Bye Birdie's "The Telephone Hour," in which a bit of scandal spreads throughout the student body like wildfire.

But even when Be More Chill does things well, it's hard to forget that others are doing them, too -- sometimes better. The opening number, "More Than Survive," capably introduces Jeremy and his lack of social skills, but it is eerily similar to Mean Girls' "It Roars," which features that play's socially challenged heroine, and even to Dear Evan Hansen's far-more-moving ballad, "Waving Through a Window." (The presence of Will Roland, a veteran of that Broadway hit, only encourages the feeling that the theatre is currently oversupplied with adolescent woes.) Similarly, Chloe and Brooke, the show's tiny contingent of mean girls, seem but a pale imitation of Regina George and her cohort over at the August Wilson Theatre. Even at its most entertaining, the show never fully dispels the question, Do we really need another safari through the high school jungle?

At times, Be More Chill struggles to stand up to its Broadway competition. The efforts of the school's drama teacher to retool a certain Shakespeare play into A Midsummer Nightmare About Zombies produces tedious results, a leftover from the days of pop-culture monster mashes with Jane Austen and Abraham Lincoln. A running gag about the drama teacher's fondness for Hot Pockets fails to produce a laugh, as does the apparent inability of Jeremy's father to don a pair of pants, a source of infinite mortification for the young man. For all its insistence on youthful pain, the show is surprisingly unmoving; it's much easier to care about Jeremy's on-and-off friendship with Michael than his halting romance with Christine, who is more a bundle of tics than a real character. (Her establishing number, "I Love Play Rehearsal," is a little too cute for its own good.) And the relentlessly energetic, nuance-free numbers can be fatiguing; taking in Be More Chill can be like guzzling a gallon of the Mountain Dew that figures so prominently in the plot.

Still, Roland, following his fine turn in Dear Evan Hansen, smoothly graduates to leading man here, and his solid characterization -- and excellent voice -- help hold the evening together. The rising musical-theatre performer George Salazar does his best work here, turning Michael into something of a co-protagonist. If Stephanie Hsu never fully charms as Christine, it may be because the role, as written, is so winsome it hurts. Tiffany Mann, who made a big impression as an aspiring pole dancer in Jerry Springer -- The Opera, is fine as Jenna, the school's one-woman edition of Buzzfeed. As one of Jeremy's lust interests, Lauren Marcus makes a simple invitation ("Do you wanna get into my mother's car?") sound like a clear incitement to perdition. Appearing in increasingly outrageous outfits -- including one that looks like he is auditioning for the role of The Little Prince -- Jason Tam makes The Squip into a sinister, ambiguous presence. Jason "Sweettooth" Williams is solid in a trio of roles.

Stephen Brackett's natural way with light comedy makes him a logical choice as director, and he partners well with the choreographer, Chase Brock, who adds such amusing touches as a dance line led by an elderly woman in a Jazzy power chair. Beowulf Boritt's set, with a deck covered in circuit-board imagery and a series of rounded horizontal portals, strikes the right note of parody sci-fi; the portals and an upstage wall serve as screens for Alex Basco Koch's projections of pixels, flames, and video-game graphics. Ryan Rumery's sound design is one of the best I've encountered recently, maintaining crystal clarity even at its loudest. (Bonus points to Charlie Rosen's orchestrations, which include a theremin for vintage monster-movie effects.) Tyler Micoleau's lighting is solid. Less appealing are the costumes, by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, which cover most of the performers with multiple layers of mismatched prints. Besides making the cast look unattractive, they do little to reveal character; you don't even have to consider how, in Mean Girls, Gregg Barnes' costumes so clearly give us the lay of the land, to be disappointed by Tilley's determinedly eccentric contribution.

Then again, there is clearly an audience for Be More Chill, and I must add that, at the finale, the audience was on its feet before the last note had dissipated. And, whatever happens, it seems clear that Iconis and Tracz are here to stay -- good news for musical theatre in the long run. The coming weeks should answer the following questions: Is Be More Chill original enough to find a berth in an already-crowded market of high school-themed shows? And can a show that is the musical-theatre equivalent of young adult literature appeal to the rest of the adult audience? -- David Barbour

(9 August 2018)

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