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While I sat mouth agape at the jaw-dropping inanity that is Be More Chill on Broadway, I looked around at the teenage girls sitting all around me. I was genuinely envious of the sheer glee they were experiencing, their eyes transfixed in front of them, their mouths singing along with every one of the songs. I am not the target audience of this runaway juggernaut, this little show that could, which is breaking attendance records at the Lyceum Theatre. (However, in another part of my life, I work in children’s books, for a company that has published several books by Ned Vizzini, whose 2004 YA novel is the basis for the musical, so I’m no mere disinterested curmudgeon.) That said, the production is a disaster. The cast is energetic, but director Stephen Brackett’s pacing is woefully inconsistent, Joe Tracz’s book is flagrantly flawed, Joe Iconis’s music and lyrics are wholly drab and forgettable, and Chase Brock’s choreography is slipshod and clumsy. The climax is so feeble I wanted to hide my head in embarrassment for everyone onstage. But none of that matters with this review-proof phenomenon, which is like a musical version of Saved by the Bell, with Screech in the lead.
As has been well documented, Be More Chill failed to make much of an impact when it premiered at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 2015, but the cast recording became a surprise hit, resulting in a sold-out run at the Signature Theatre last year and the Broadway transfer, with much of the cast intact since its beginning. The plot follows the trajectory of high school student Jeremy Heere (Will Roland), who is lured by bad boy Rich Guranski (Gerard Canonico) into taking a pill known as the SQUIP (which stands for “super quantum unit intel processor” and is personified by the devilishly handsome Jason Tam) in order to make him more confident, popular, and cool. Upon the SQUIP’s commands, Jeremy starts ignoring his best friend, the nerdy Michael Mell (George Salazar), and hanging out with stylish mean girls Chloe Valentine (Katlyn Carlson) and Brooke Lohst (Lauren Marcus) to make his crush, Christine Canigula (Stephanie Hsu), jealous, while she flirts with class superstar Jake Dillinger (Britton Smith) as they all participate in the school play, A Midsummer Nightmare (about Zombies). Jeremy also has to deal with his sad, lonely father (Jason “SweetTooth” Williams), who spends most of his days at home in his underwear and bathrobe. As the pill takes hold, Jeremy sacrifices his personal identity and true self – and everything around him falls apart.
The musical hits many current hot-button teen issues, including sexual orientation, depression, bullying, suicidal thoughts, divorced parents, drug and alcohol abuse, sex, and more, but none of them is examined in any realistic way, instead becoming clichés and caricatures. Beowulf Boritt’s glam, ever-changing set is amusing, Bobby Frederick Tilley’s costumes are fun (especially at the Halloween party, with Jeremy going as one of the hive-minded Borg), and Tiffany Mann blasts it into hyperspace as Jenna Nolan, but the rest of the show is a major drag. Sadly, Vizzini killed himself in 2013 at the age of thirty-two; in addition, “Jeremy” is the title character in the 1992 Pearl Jam song inspired by the real-life suicide of a high school student. Unfortunately, a magic pill was not able to save them; nor can anything save this show, despite its breakout popularity. And popularity, particularly in high school, can be a double-edged sword.
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