The theatre is buzzing with excitement before the show even begins. When it opened last fall at Pershing Square Signature Center, there were stories of money being saved from after-school jobs and allowances just so these teenagers from all over the country could get themselves to New York City to see Be More Chill live and in person. No wonder, it’s a young and feisty High School musical, something akin to Mean Girls mixed with the Sci-Fi out of this world Little Shop of Horrors, with a dash of outsider angst Dear Evan Hansen layered on top of its catchy fun soundtrack. With super festive music and lyrics by Joe Iconis (Broadway Bounty Hunter) and a comically strong book by Joe Tracz (Poster Boy) based on the novel by Ned Vizzini, the crowd is still 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 the wildly successful off-Broadway run), as they and I wait for that first chord to reverberate through the theatre.
It hasn’t slipped a bit since transferring to the Lyceum Theatre, generally getting a sharper and sparkler upgrade that was needed to make the big time leap. But essentially, it all comes down to “Micheal In the Bathroom“. The celebrated song, sung with a supreme comical and emotional depth by the delicious and Award winning George Salazar (off-Broadway’s The Lightning Thief, tick, tick… BOOM!) made it big on YouTube long before the show debuted last year. The video music sensation, garnered thousands of views, standing at 3,617,922 today and growing, and delivers the teenage angst that resonates far outside the simple recording. I’m still pretty convinced that 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 songs 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.
These fans are definitely given the pill of ‘not disappointed’ with this production, as the music and the upgraded 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).
The opening has a “Hello Baltimore”/Hairspray feeling that 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. It’s such a meta-theatrical moment as the lead role is performed expertly by the oh-so-perfect Will Roland (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt“). His singing, although infused with maybe a bit too many quirky gimmicks, wonderfully captures the essence of being uncomfortable all day long. He’ll never be the Robert DeNiro of this tale, but in the real Broadway world, it is quite obviously the opposite. After years of playing the obnoxiously hilarious cousin to (Dear) Evan Hansen opposite Ben Platt (who I can’t wait to see in concert next week at The Beacon), Roland is now the star of his own loser story, and even though he sings solidly 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 thoroughly entertaining and star-making. The exact same thing, times a thousand, can be said of side-kick Salazar as his best buddy in this “Two-Player Game“. Those two together carry the momentum forward with an authentic bond and clear charm that resonates beyond Zombie Slaying.
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 (Broadway’s SpongeBob Squarepants). She hyper-energetically rules the stage, playing with her quirks to the heroic heights, especially during her fantastically witty number, “I Love Play Rehearsal“. She makes the moment and her character impossible not to love, admire, and adore. She’s “passionate, a lot“, so it makes sense Jeremy jumps in when high school bad boy Rich, played by the multi-layered Gerald Canonico (Broadway’s Groundhog Day) offers up “The Squip Song“. With hopes of a new tomorrow in his geeky head, Jeremy quickly makes his way to Payless to gulp down the outlandish offer enthusiastically, and “then, then, then, he got a squip“, direct from Japan and in the dedicated alcohol-intolerant format of the wonderfully smooth-talking ninja-confident Jason Tam (Broadway’s If/Then, Lysistrata Jones). In beautifully Matrix-like costumes forever being enhanced by designer Bobby Frederick Tilley II (2ST’s All New People), the Squip magically and chemically becomes Jeremy’s “Upgrade” teaching him how to “Be More Chill” and talk to girls like the cool-girl second banana 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 delightfully over-the-top 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 (Broadway’s Shuffle Along) as the delightfully stereotyped cool dude, Jake Dillinger. There’s also a surprise 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 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 fun albeit straight-forward high school material, at least morality-wise, played out professionally and with a furry white grin. Even with the premise being so out-there and diabolically unique, the story connects, particularly with the young and enthusiastic crowd in attendance. 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 big gulp of ‘Best Friend devotion’ and a Dad “so strong“, played to perfection by Jason Sweettooth Williams (Signature/La Jolla’s Freaky Friday). Dad finally figures out that he has to pull it all together (and on) for his son’s survival and he needs Michael to help him out. The 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 a much less serious or raw emotionality than the hit, Dear Evan Hansen, but has heart to spare. This touching and humorous song and musical delivers something just as thrilling. It’s definitely lighter in touch and style, 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 funny and charming show delivers the goods, and with the crowd cheering these characters on at every turn, Be More Chill seems destined to be a survivor out there in the big scary world of Broadway. “O-M-G- Chlo, answer me, Woah, wait until I tell you what I heard!“ can be heard by those obviously new theatre junkies being formatted as we all stand in line for the bathroom. Happily Michael isn’t the one inside, holding us all up.
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