It all comes down to “Micheal In the Bathroom“. The celebrated song, sung with a comical and emotional depth by the delicious George Salazar (off-Broadway’s The Lightning Thief, tick, tick… BOOM!) made it big on YouTube long before the show debuted on the Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The video music sensation, garnered thousands of views, standing at 2,373,347 today and growing, and delivers the teenage angst-essence that resonates far outside the simple recording. I’m guessing I’m not really the demographic nor the standard youthful YouTube viewer who floats around the video library source looking and searching for the trending and exciting new things out there. And I guess that also means I might be missing out on solid stuff like this. Who knew? But because of this video and the original Cast Recording existing out there online, the buzz that is floating around the current staging of the musical, Be More Chill, couldn’t be bigger and more electric. And as guided with ADD enthusiastic energy by both the formidable Stephen Brackett, the director of the powerful The Mad Ones at 59E59/Prospect Theater, and choreographed by the talented Chase Brock (Public’s First Daughter Suite), it deserves every bit of the hyper hype it has accumulated.
The theatre is just buzzing with excitement before the show even begins, with stories of money being saved from after-school jobs and allowances just so some of these teenagers from all over the country could get themselves to New York City to see Be More Chill live and in person. And no wonder, it’s a young and feisty Mean Girls musical, mixed with the Sci-Fi out of this world Little Shop of Horrors, with a light outsider touch of a humorous Dear Evan Hansen layered on top of its catchy soundtrack. With super strong and festive music and lyrics by Joe Iconis (Broadway Bounty Hunter) and a compelling and comical book by Joe Tracz (Poster Boy) based on the novel by Ned Vizzini, the crowd is as stoked as you can imagine. Everyone is instructed to “deactivate” and set their phones to ‘silent & enjoy’. They can all barely contain themselves in their seats, and the fever is catching (especially after listening to the cast recording over and over again as I write this), as they and I wait for that first chord to reverberate through the theatre.
They are not disappointed in the least, as the music and the projected graphics shout out a thrilling electronic welcome, thanks to the strong music direction of Emily Marshall (Broadway’s Mean Girls), and orchestrations/music supervision by Charlie Rosen (Prince of Broadway). The highly effective scenic design by Beowulf Boritt (Come From Away), frames the piece to computer-like perfection, with spot-on lighting by Tyler Micoleau (The Band’s Visit), solid sound designer Ryan Rumery (“CIty of Gold“), and amazing and exciting projection designs by Alex Basco Koch (Barrow Street’s Buyer & Cellar). It has a “Hello Baltimore”/Hairsprayfeeling, that first number, but creatively, it transitions beautifully towards something bigger than just a good morning. “More Than Survive” is Jeremy’s anthem and mantra as he slumps towards another uncomfortable day at the generic Mean Girls High School. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a Janice or a Damien to help him navigate the halls where he is, most definitely, not the cool guy, but the one who’s left out; which is such a meta-theatrical moment. Performed expertly by the oh-so-wonderful Will Roland (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt“), he sings gloriously of being uncomfortable all day long, and never being the Robert DeNiro of this tale, but in the real world, it is quite obviously the opposite. After years of playing the obnoxiously incredible cousin to (Dear) Evan Hansen opposite Ben Platt, Roland is now the leading man of his own loser story, and even though he sings majestically about being said loser, Roland is most definitely not, as there is no other way to see his performance in Be More Chill other than stupendous and star-making. And the same can be said of side-kick Salazar as his best buddy in this “Two-Player Game“.
Jeremy doesn’t want to be a hero, at least that is what he says, but he does want to get to know Christine Canigula, played with epic energy by the magnificent Stephanie Hsu (the sadly just closed Broadway’s SpongeBob Squarepants) a whole lot better. She hyper-energetically rules the stage, especially during her fantastically witty number, “I Love Play Rehearsal“, making it impossible not to love and adore her just like Jeremy. She’s “passionate, a lot“, so it makes sense when high school bad boy Rich, played strongly by the multi-layered Gerald Canonico (Broadway’s Groundhog Day) offers up “The Squip Song“. Jeremy quickly makes his way to Payless after that hilariously uncomfortable bathroom scene to gulp down the offer enthusiastically, and “then, then, then, he got a squip“, direct from Japan and in the delicately alcohol-intolerant format of the wonderfully smooth-talking Jason Tam (Broadway’s If/Then, Lysistrata Jones). In beautifully Matrix-like costumes forever being enhanced by designer Bobby Frederick Tilley (2ST’s All New People), the Squip magically and chemically becomes Jeremy’s “Upgrade” teaching him how to “Be More Chill” and talk to the girls like Brooke, played dynamically by the very funny Lauren Marcus (Barrington’s Company). “Do you want to ride?“, she asks most emphatically, but her BFF, Chloe, played with a crisp and ridiculous Regina George veneer by the delightful Katlyn Carlson (off-Broadway’s The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin) is a bit more complicated in the bedroom, mainly because of the solidly funny turn of Britton Smith’s delightfully stereotyped Jake Dillinger. There’s also one magnificent turn by the powerhouse Tiffany Mann (TNG’s Jerry Springer the Opera) as tossed around Jenna, who, with her two oddly attached girlfriends, bring down the Signature Center house with the wickedly perfect cheerleader song, “The Smartphone Hour (Rick Set A Fire)“.
Even with the fire and the hormones raging, it’s all pretty straight forward stuff to be honest, morality-wise, even with the premise being so out-there and diabolically unique. Jeremy just needs a secondary reboot to figure out just what is the most important thing in life, especially high school life. What he really needs is a bit of Best Friend devotion and a Dad “so strong“, played to perfection by Jason Sweettooth Williams (Signature/La Jolla’s Freaky Friday) that he knows he has to pull it all together (and on) for his son’s survival. Their solidly funny duet, “The Pants Song” made it all come together for me. This, I could now see, is ‘the loser’ story that so many in high school know all too well. It’s told with much a less serious or raw emotionality than the hit, Dear Evan Hansen, but this touching and humorous song and musical delivers something just as dynamically. It’s definitely lighter in touch, with a bit more comedic and sci-fi drive, but that wink and a smile still tweaked on my heart strings just as realistically. There’s “never been a better time in history to be a loser“, says Be More Chill, and the cast and creative team certainly know what they are talking about. This amazingly funny and charming show delivers the goods, and “O-M-G- Chlo, answer me, Woah, wait until I tell you what I heard!“. Happily, Be More Chill just announced a transfer to the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway starting February 13, 2019, and with the crowd cheering these characters on at every turn, it seems destined to be a survivor out there in the big scary world of Broadway. Even without some Mountain Dew Red to do its magic.