By Martha Wade Steketee
You will hear, see, and feel the future of musical theater in the Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz creation Be More Chill, now at The Pershing Square Signature Center. In just over two hours, our adolescent protagonist loses and finds his way, his parent and best friend join forces to bring him back, several girls find each other and their own power, and evil is repelled by good. And you’ll witness unbridled enthusiasm for beloved characters and performers by intense fans who know every word, while the rest of us begin to catch up with this phenomenon. There is joy here on stage and off.
It is daunting to approach a show that speaks to people decades my junior, that has a monumental on-line life (millions of YouTube views and other new age metrics of popularity), and a pulsing energy that rocks the lobby before you enter the theater. The usually laid-back atmosphere of the Signature lobby now accommodates a set of serious folks in security uniforms and roped off areas for post-show congregation. These indications of small scale rock star adventures raise questions that color my experience before the show begins. What could this buzzy atmosphere be telling me about what I’m going to find on the other side of the theater doors?
I am delighted to report that these primarily adolescent super fans were rapt, focused, and enthusiastic, cheering the performers they seemed to know, I later learned, from videos and a 2017 cast recording made before this current run was secured. The roars of recognition quickly fell away to deeply respectful attention. Not a single cell phone went off or side conversation was held during the performance; every set of eyes and ears attending the action on stage, every heart open, and all ages loving it with equal intensity.
Developed as a commission with New Jersey’s Two River Theater in 2015, Joe Tracz’s witty adaptation of Ned Vizzini’s novel (new to me, apparently adored by many) provides characters that are types and unique creations, who sing tunes by the wunderkind Joe Iconis that evoke multiple musical traditions and focus on smart, clear lyrics. Directed with elegance by Stephen Brackett, and with energetic and effective choreography by Chase Brock, this comedy comes off as a conventional teen angst drama with some great sci-fi twists.
Be More Chill is set in an unnamed New Jersey, mall-surrounded, middle class high school. Our hero Jeremy Heere (Will Roland) just wants to fit in. His single Dad (Jason Sweettooth Williams) works from home in his boxers and may be a bit depressed. His best buddy Michael (the delectable George Salazar, whose every entrance is greeted by screams of his adoring fans) loves his friend and is confused by changes in their friendship. Christine (Stephanie Hsu), the girl Jeremy pines for, loves theater rehearsal because the logic has all been worked out. Two popular girls that could become “mean girls” but don’t – Chloe (Katlyn Carlson) and Brooke (Lauren Marcus) – shine in their blonde cuteness and reveal insecurities of their own. Jenna (Tiffany Mann) keeps tabs on everyone else and inspires a gasp of recognition when someone finally asks her about herself, when she has always observed rather than participated in events.
This all plays as a conventional teen drama set up until Jeremy hears about a “squip” magic pill from fellow student Rich (the snarly and insistent Gerard Canonico) – a computer in pill form that purports to make you popular by telling you the right thing to do and how to “be more chill.” The Squip voice in Jeremy’s head is embodied theatrically by the stunning and crowd-beloved Jason Tam. Only Jeremy hears or sees him, and he can stop Jeremy from speaking. Most disturbing, he has the power to blank out people and things from Jeremy’s consciousness. For example, he can no longer see his old friend Michael, who the Squip regards as beneath Jeremy’s aspired level of coolness.
The science fiction oddity of the magic pill offers Roland some dramatic character shifts, and Tam some extraordinary Squip stage moments. This also feels like a reference to the scientific adventure of the 1966 science fiction film Fantastic Voyage with scientists who traveled by miniaturized submarine inserted through a tear duct of an injured scientist to conduct brain surgery on him. Literal and metaphorical possibilities abound for magic potions that attempt to skip over developmental stages – e.g. medications for ADHD and other behavioral challenges that can simply tamp down characteristics that define personality. Jeremy’s journey, of course, is to see that he needs to travel his own road on his own terms, he wants to live his life with his family and friends, and he wants to decide for himself who is and is not cool.
Two of the most devastating tunes involve Salazar’s Michael and work as standalone journeys of self-discovery and declarations of resolve. “Michael in the Bathroom” tells the tale of a young man falling apart, cut adrift from his friend at a party where he feels estranged from the world. “I’m just Michael in the bathroom at a party, no you can’t come in.” We’ve all been there. And Jeremy’s Dad sings of getting out of his own depression to help his son, with Michael’s help in “The Pants Song,” delivering the life lesson “when you love somebody, you put your pants on for them.” I laughed through tears and the powerful truth here.
Threads of homage run through the show. “The Smartphone Hour” deep in the second act is an ensemble song of student-to-student spreading the story of a fire, directly invoking Bye Bye Birdie’s “The Telephone Hour” in which town teenagers share their own bit of gossip. The “Opening Doors” staccato piano rift from Merrily We Roll Along appears in house music, before each act, at random times in the score. Or did I imagine it? This is a show where identifying musical references will be half the fun.
Beowulf Boritt’s set design creatively tackles the challenge of portraying the adolescent on-line world. Intriguingly, while our characters communicate via text and phone and screen, Boritt’s design provides frames within frames that stretch from downstage to upstage, and screens that move in and out as needed from the wings, and what could be a motherboard’s wiring design adorns the stage itself. The rest of the real and imagined horror of adolescence and the Squip’s desired and undesired effects are portrayed in text and lyric, costumes by Bobby Frederick Tilley II and lighting by Tyler Micoleau, and our own imaginations.
Witness the rise and fall of adolescent yelps and screams of pleasure at their musical heroes and she-roes in a new musical written just for them. Thrill to the spark of originality in a universal growing-up story. You’ll live within this enchanting new musical, observe its effects, and perhaps reminisce about that first cast recording you memorized from first note to final beat. In Be More Chill, you will give your heart to the kids in the audience, the kids on the stage, the kids behind this marvelous show, and the kid in yourself.
Be More Chill. Extended Through September 30, 2018 at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). Running time 2 hours 20 minutes, with one intermission.
Photos: Maria Baranova