The Bitter Happy Pills of ‘Be More Chill’ on Broadway May Give You a Familiar Downer
The Daily Beast
March 10, 2019
‘Be More Chill’ became a massive, much-buzzed-about success off-Broadway. Now it comes to the Great White Way, and too much of it is grating, facile, and all too familiar.
Whatever this critic says (advance apologies, it comes with an eye roll), the audience for Be More Chill, which opens on Broadway tonight (booking to March 29, 2020), will remain steadfast.
Ever since its sellout off-Broadway run, the show has become a hit with the best kind of social-media word of mouth powering its progress to Broadway. It has brought, so observers have noted, a younger audience to the theater. It has caused great excitement and created extreme fandom.
All of this is to the genuine, to-be-welcomed good, but still it left me puzzled, cold and (at moments) plain furious. Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz’s musical is the story of a supposedly teenage boy called Jeremy Heere (Will Roland), living in suburban New Jersey. He is a nerd. He lives with his dad (Jeremy SweetTooth Williams), who wanders around in his underpants in a kind of genteel depressive fug. His wife, and Jeremy’s mom, is absent.
At school, Jeremy is nerdy. He likes girls, but is nervous around them. He has a best friend (Michael, George Salazar) who is chipper and camp at all times (the bullies have graffitied their rucksacks to read “boyf” and “riends”). There are weird, slightly off “gay” jokes made at Jeremy’s expense right at the start of the show, which are sour and stupid, and also unchallenged.
Everyone seems and looks much older than school-age, which is the first suspension of disbelief the show requires; it looks like a lot of twentysomethings pretending to be at school. The cartoonish acting, the crazeee expressions and heightened everything means that every moment comes at you like an OMG!!! sledgehammer.
The high concept is what if there was a drug (called a Squip) that could make all sensitive teenagers better, invincible, curing all frailties and difficulties. The effects of this drug are portrayed by Jason Tam, who is having the most outrageous time on stage as an embodiment of the mind-altering, unbeatable life force the pill elicits. He’s the devil in your head, a Frank N. Furter in fitted dramatic gowns. Jeremy can see and hear him and so can we. No one else can.
A Squip gives Jeremy confidence and arrogance. All insecurity and inner questioning is vanquished, Michael is jettisoned, but—and yes, this is the public service for teenagers aspect of the musical—at what cost?
You can pick whatever message path you want through this brightly lit madness: is this a comment on the opioid epidemic, a warning against becoming sheep-like and trying to be like a cool kid? Both? Maybe just: Don’t take funny pills, kids? Be nice to your loyal friends and poor parents?
For two and a half hours—and even if you are a dedicated fan, this is ass-numbingly too long for such unfocused material—the questions of loyalty, friendship and the truth of one’s character and motivations are interrogated.
Obviously, you want Jeremy to be free of his evil spirit/after-effects of the Squip, but at least that evil spirit wears great outfits and flies around mwah-ha-ha-ing. The other teens at school are split into mean girl, mean girl sidekick, and quirky girl who should be Jeremy’s true love.
The worst feeling during Be More Chill is that you’ve seen all these characters before, particularly the suburban white boy, who feels like an outsider. In New Jersey. Who loves theatre group.
Roland was a star of Dear Evan Hansen, and so when the stage comes alive with projections of electronic circuitry, and the songs go on about feeling alone and different to everyone else, it just feels too close a retread to that musical, both visually and thematically.
At the beginning, one lyric posits that if only one day the nerds weren’t the outsiders, if only they could be the story and center-stage. The truth is, on Broadway and off, nerds are the heroes; vapid jocks and pretty girls have been the villains for years and years.
A villainous nerd who wasn’t white, wasn’t male, wasn’t teenage, wasn’t from New Jersey, wasn’t feeling alone, and who was most definitely not into theater group would be a subversive Broadway character right now.
Much else about Be More Chill sadly is familiar from other shows, or a mash-up of familiars. For much of the two and the half hours this critic was dreaming of future Broadway shows, where producers did away with all these familiar ingredients, the safe white face with their nerd/outsider/not-so outsider-actually problems and safe and predictable story and character tropes.
Tiffany Mann, who plays Jenna in this show, has the most outstanding voice on stage, and this critic hopes one day a producer gives her a Broadway show to pilot. Or Stephanie Hsu, whose ‘I Love Play Rehearsal’ has a sweet, burrowing, tentative enquiry to it. Salazar’s ‘Michael In The Bathroom’ is the show’s standout song, a truly original, both funny and piercing meditation about teen loneliness and estrangement from the group.
‘The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire)’ is a nutty showstopper about the after effects of a fire, which actually causes serious injury and comes about because of a suicide attempt.
That last thud of a story (garbled away in lyrics) underlines another fundamental weakness of the play: it has, I think, a serious message it wants to convey about being yourself, about being true to your inner voices. But it really doesn’t know what to do with its themes of suicide, maternal desertion, paternal lack (magically resolved with a truly weird song about wearing trousers) and depression. It flirts with them. These heavy themes give the show a surface, chin-scratching gravitas, but it doesn’t engage with their mess and murk.
The Squip pill is wrong because it perverts what is natural within us. But the show doesn’t really know what to do with this either, because another after effect of the pill is that the teenagers seem to be much nicer after taking it, and having gotten over it. It’s actually somehow wired them into caring about one another. The Squip has ultimately helped them all become way less navel-gazing.
Be More Chill feels squawkily split between camp sci fi romp and searing teenage-life-today commentary. The title itself is the last annoying puzzle. If anything the show suggests that we all have to live with our insecurities and other inner demons; the trick is not to let them dominate us.
The lesson is not to be more chill, but to be more aware. More careful and caring to yourself and others. More empathic. More open. More active and engaged. To look outside ourselves. By the end Jeremy has learned the perils of being “more chill” as offered by the Squips.
The evening I went, the group of young women sitting in front of me didn’t laugh that uproariously, or laugh, or cheer or clap, or stand to applaud at the end. Many others did. Who did and didn’t wasn’t, as far as this critic could tell, demarcated by obvious age brackets. That said it all, maybe. You’ll either ‘get’ Be More Chill, or, like this critic, you really won’t.