Be More Chill is a PSA on not to take the pill that will implant a snarky supercomputer in your brain—even if it tells you how to be cool. You need to activate it with Mountain Dew too. It’s that kind of plot. Upon entering the Lyceum Theater, a spooky ambiance buzzes as if you’re in the belly of a master-computer.
With blueprints from the 2004 novel by the late Ned Vizzini, Be More Chill is a high school comedy infused with techy sci-fi–the element that sets it apart from other Broadway productions.
With fitting whimpering anxiety and a pout, Will Roland stars as the self-loathing high schooler Jeremy Heere. Jeremy is bereft at his lack of social cool, unlike his stoner friend Michael (George Salazar), who sees his own nerdiness as his zen. Desperate, Jeremy consumes the pill, termed a SQUIP, to acquire the sociability and popularity to win the heart of the perky Christine (Stephanie Hsu). Jeremy figures that having the special AI in his brain will erase his loser qualities. But the SQUIP, personified by Jason Tam with a patronizing surfer muhahaha quality, has calculating ways to reboot Jeremy’s social status.
Be More Chill is committed to its high school genre, though even its archetypes can feel by-the-numbers. The popular cool guy and the bully have visible tics before the protagonist ever recognizes their insecurities. As for its entertaining but vain, blonde popular girl characters, I have seen these mean girls executed with more on-point humanity in, well, Mean Girls the musical. Although Christine has the role of the standard love interest role, Hsu beams with a shameless dorkishness that gives Christine a sense of her own existence. For example, “I Love Play Rehearsal” is a song designed to be simple enough to give Hsu’s space to ham up her character’s modest yet bombastic imagination.
Even if you don’t dig the teen drama, Be More Chill’s main attraction is its science-fiction flash. A techno-snappiness to the up-tempo score injects an infectious quality even to some its generic numbers. Chase Brock’s animated choreography is invigorated by vogue-gestures to convey interfacing-synchronization. Watching the SQUIP evolve, as his costume transforms from life coach garb to a luminous robe, is delightful as his diabolical hold on Jeremy unfurls. Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt uses a steady minimalism, allowing the screens (with projection design by Alex Basco Koch) to helm the visuals with jutting out computer windows, raining down computer codes Matrix-style, and flashing electronic circuits.
I am not the best to say whether Be More Chill will hook all Broadway-goers. Its digestibility is geared toward Generation Z and Millennial audiences with a general knowledge of nerd-geek culture. Joe Iconis’s lyrics fires pop culture references at a hit-miss rate, with some allusions sailing over my head. Granted, one Eminem gag has an inexplicably goofy development I did not expect to laugh at so hard.
The musical disseminates life lessons about loyalty and living with your awkward self. By the finale of flashy techno flares and kung-fu hilarity, it became evident I was more into the bonkerness than the lessons. Its story is most sincere when its teenagers are thinking over the mess of their lives. Though the musical can speed over their introspection rather than take pause. Roland exerts bountiful energy, softening up, stiffening on cue, and selling his anguish, even through his otherwise generically written closing Act I number “Loser Geek Whatever.” But the potent emotional peak is Salazar’s showstopper “Michael in the Bathroom” number, an earnest encapsulation of the anxieties of youth when you’re in the social pressure cooker. For a stimulating musical of whiplashes, I will remember Michael’s breakdown the most, being deserted in a small space with your adolescent angst, envisioning the world invading you.