Be More Chill may be the most ironically titled musical of 2018: Featuring a hard-charging score by Joe Iconis and a deliriously funny book by Joe Tracz, this musical adrenaline rush is anything but chill. The same goes for the ecstatic crowds at Signature Center, where Be More Chill is currently playing a sold-out run. Truly, it is difficult to be “chill” about this outrageously fun sci-fi musical comedy. If you’re like me, you’ll be geeking out about it for a long time.
I’m a relatively new adherent compared with the hordes of young enthusiasts whose devotion to the cast recording and online fan art have given Be More Chill a new lease on life since its 2015 run in New Jersey. Even though the tickets have been snatched up for this off-Broadway debut, I suspect this isn’t the last you’ll hear of the show: Be More Chill is poised for global domination.
Based on Ned Vizzini’s 2004 young adult novel, it follows the social transformation of high school loser Jeremy Heere (Will Roland). The secret to his success is a “squip,” a microscopic Japanese supercomputer (Jason Tam) that embeds in his brain and tells him how to be cool. Jeremy learns about it from his pint-size bully, Rich (the superhumanly charismatic Gerard Canonico), who has had a squip since freshman year. Jeremy’s best friend, Michael (superstar George Salazar), is skeptical; but Jeremy sees this drastic measure as the only way to win the affection of drama nerd Christine (Stephanie Hsu). She is more interested in Jake (Britton Smith), so wooing her won’t be easy. The squip calculates that Jeremy might even be happier with a popular girl like Chloe (Katlyn Carlson) or Brooke (Lauren Marcus). We begin to wonder if the Squip is there to serve Jeremy, or the other way around.
The story is reminiscent of ’80s teen sci-fi flicks like Weird Science, with tongue-in-cheek Faustian undertones that hark back to Little Shop of Horrors. Stephen Brackett’s supercharged production maintains that winning combination through stage pictures rarely seen outside of an animated feature. His multidimensional blocking is facilitated by Beowulf Boritt’s sleek set of frames within frames, making it appear as though the show is taking place within a computer. It also offers multiple surfaces for Alex Basco Koch’s eye-popping digital projections. Bobby Frederick Tilley II’s quasi-futuristic costumes reflect the eclectic score while giving us an instant sense of character and status. Choreographer Chase Brock incorporates tutting (and a fair amount of jumping around) for dances that feel modern and endlessly energetic. The production numbers are so enormous that we often forget there are only ever 10 actors onstage.
Roland leads the tireless cast with authentic dweebiness, rock vocals, and crystal-clear diction so we can hear every lyric (props to sound designer Ryan Rumery as well). Salazar is an instantly appealing wingman and briefly steals the show during his big number, “Michael in the Bathroom.” Hsu easily conveys Christine’s idiosyncratic, slightly intense charm. With a big voice to match her personality, Tiffany Mann dazzles as school busybody Jenna. Tam embodies the Squip with breezy confidence that verges on sinister (until it actually becomes sinister). All of their performances are made even more impressive by the range required to make this show fly.
Iconis is a musical magpie, incorporating contemporary pop and rock into a classic, almost retro Broadway sound. Charlie Rosen’s smart orchestrations account for that while enhancing the sci-fi vibe with that nerdiest of instruments, the theremin. Content dictates form in Iconis’s score, which efficiently moves the story forward through catchy melodies that implant in your brain.
Iconis’s magic reaches its dizzy zenith in the cleverly titled second act number “The Smartphone Hour,” depicting the viral spread of gossip while revealing a key plot point. A wicked satire of tragedy fetishism on social media, it sounds like a collaboration between Fall Out Boy, Burt Bacharach, and Toni Basil. Our jaws hit the floor by the end of this near-operatic showstopper.
Between its fixation on high school popularity and hyperactive score, Be More Chill often feels like Mean Girls on speed. But like all good science fiction, it smartly suggests a connection between the events we’re witnessing onstage and larger forces in our world. “We’re talking an insanely powerful supercomputer,” Michael points out. “You really think its primary function is to get you laid?” And we think, Sure, just like how our iPhones are there to help us find the closest Starbucks, and how Mark Zuckerberg just wants us all to be friends. Social anxiety is nothing new, but the exploitation of that anxiety for marketing-driven totalitarianism is. Be More Chill holds a funhouse mirror up to the way we increasingly live our digital lives. That makes it not just ridiculously fun, but positively heroic.