One doesn’t have to be a millennial or Generation Z to really dig the new musical BE MORE CHILL, but it helps, evidenced by the enthusiastic, adoring response of its largely under-30 audience. Based on Ned Vizzini’s 2004 novel, adapted by Joe Tracz and outfitted with almost two dozen songs with music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, BE MORE CHILL is a hybrid of the timeless Faustian legend with a sci-fi twist and anti-drug message. It’s the penultimate teen musical, this time, in contrast to MEAN GIRLS, from the guy’s POV.
The hormonally super-charged Jeremy is the high-school loser, whose best friend Michael is geeky, too. Jeremy’s home life in suburban New Jersey sucks: he doesn’t get along very well with his dad since his mother died. At school, Jeremy is hot for the cute and kooky Christine and joins the cast of the Drama Club’s zombie version of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” to get close to her. Christine really has her eye on the class hunk, whom she quips is “pucking his way around” his part in the play. Frustrated with lack of progress, Jeremy follows up on classmate Rich’s connection to SQUIP (Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor), a grey pill that implants itself in his brain to tell its user how to behave for success. Jeremy becomes commandeered by The Squip, a computerized kind of sci-fi handler and careens erratically from the new to the old self. When tragedy besets the teen scene, Jeremy finally releases himself - and saves his high school world - from SQUIP domination.
This to-thine-own-self-be-true fable is rather messy, presumably intended to be so by writer Tracz: the Playbill program notes express thanks to author Vizzini for “inspiring a generation of messy, beautiful people.” It’s also peppered with specks of satire and a heavy dose of pop-culture. Bobby Frederick Tilley II’s costuming gives a nod to Dolce’s plaid pants. Teen consumerism pops up a lot: female characters use eos (essence of smooth, a lip gloss in ball form) and shop at Forever 21, a teen fashion outlet. While decidedly ant-drug, BE MORE CHILL is drug culture sophisticated: Mountain Dew, with which SQUIP is imbibed, is one of the most highly caffeinated sodas, and apparently widely popular among drug users. And Mountain Dew Red, the antidote to SQUIP, has a “contraband” connotation. (Sometimes available as eBay collectible, it was introduced, and then discontinued in 1988.)
Iconis’ songs seems repetitive and monotonous here: he’s better working with steadier thematic material like the charming, garage band tale THE BLACK SUITS or the campy, hilarious BROADWAY BOUNTY HUNTER, both of which had successful summer runs at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires. Still, the audience loved CHILL’s pop-rock score. The musical, which fist premiered at New Jersey’s Two River Theater in 2015, developed, like most of Iconis’ work, an immediate, loyal following. The original cast recording of CHILL’s 2018 Off-Broadway production has since been streamed on-line by over 150 million users. The music is louder than necessary but the producers are playing to their audience.
The small cast performs energetically (sometimes frenetically) at the energetic (sometimes frenetic) pace set by director Stephen Brackett. Will Roland in the lead as Jeremy proves he has the pipes which only got a featured part in DEAR EVAN HANSEN. Stephanie Hsu, last seen on Broadway in SPONGE BOB, has perfect comic timing as Christine. Jason Tam, as The Squip, channeling Keanu Reeves, does what he can with playing a computer (not a real devil as in Faust). Most appealing is George Salazar’s Rich, who soars in the unexpectedly quirky solo “Michael In the Bathroom”, he show’s most memorable song. Kudos, to Jason SweetTooth Williams, who collaborated with Iconis on BROADWAY BOUNTY HUNTER, who plays Jeremy’s father, high school drama coach, and a minor weirdo character, for his commendable versatility. He’s charming in duet with Salazar when they bond in their concern for Michael in “The Pants Song”, the other of Iconis’ more distinctive songs here.
The ever-resourceful Beowulf Boritt designed the sets, a cartoonish, colorful, confection of pop-culture props. Costumes reach outrageous forms in the “Halloween” sequence that opens Act 2. BE MORE CHILL concludes with an audience-cheering, crowd-pleasing number called “Voices in My Head” which many patrons seemed already familiar with. The theatre smelled like lip gloss and bubble gum, and that’s not entirely metaphoric.
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