Technology plays a major role onstage in “Be More Chill,” the high school-set musical that uses a brain altering super-computer — masquerading as a popularity drug — as a plot device to poke satirical fun at the all-consuming, all-connecting dangers of faceless social media and needy groupthink.
But tech also played a backstage role in this production of composer Joe Iconis and book-writer Joe Tracz’s musical, now playing Off Broadway after a brief 2015 run at New Jersey’s Two River Theater. What Jersey couldn’t do for Iconis’ 80s New Wave-ish musical score, the internet has made up for. Its electro pop-inspired tunes (think “Stranger Things” with a hammily melodic Broadway through line) went viral, racking up 150 million+ streams in the United States alone, to say nothing of the fan art shared from Japan to New Jersey. Given the might of the meme, commercial producers took a chance on “Chill.”
But it’s the mix of twitchy nu-tech and old fashioned humanity that makes the show, based on the YA novel by Ned Vizzini, a memorable thrill ride, a zealously caffeinated high school musical complete with slamming locker doors, stolen kisses with fresh lip gloss, broadly-drawn bullies and — the heart of the story — two buds playing chiptune-scored video games and smoking pot in their bedroom.
Only one of the pals, the musical’s gawky protagonist Jeremy (a Jon Cryer-like Will Roland, familiar from the original Broadway cast of “Dear Evan Hansen”), succumbs to the charms of the Squip, an oblong grey pill that promises upgrades in personality, dress and confidence. That’s what sets the action of “Be More Chill” in motion.
Jeremy’s bunk-rocking duet with his pal Michael (George Salazar), “Two-Player Game,” is both a charming paean to friendship in the internet age and a chance for two tenors to show off their pipes. It also reveals Iconis’ buoyant blend of old-school showbiz schmaltz and techno-tronic New Wave force. From the rapid fire “ca-ca-ca-ca-c’mon” verse of “More Than Survive” at the show’s opening, to the lush yet taut finale of “Voices in My Head,” Iconis’ music and lyrics come at you like DEVO meets Pasek & Paul.
What Salazar (a popular cast holdover from the 2015 production) does as Michael is act as a necessary buffer between Jeremy and the high school’s cool kids. After Jeremy takes the pill, Michael finds himself a cast-off loser who alone recognizes the dangers of the Squip, and must save his friend from eternal millennial rakishness and pain.
The duo make for a handsome team, a techno Hope & Crosby where one guy does a stupid thing to get the girl (in this case, Christine, played by big-voiced Stephanie Hsu), and the other must make things right — even if that means combating the human manifestation of The Squip, played to self-described Keanu Reeves-esque perfection by Jason Tam.
Roland’s best musical moment comes early in the show with squeakily and eloquently-rendered lines such as “I don’t want to be a hero/ Just wanna stay in the line/ I’ll never be a Rob De Niro/ For me, Joe Pesci is fine.” For Salazar, his nervous “Michael in the Bathroom” is a second act tour de force, a rollercoaster ride of anxiety-driven vocal emotionalism and melodic complexity.
But two of the finest musical moments of “Be More Chill” come from outside the main duo: Baritone Tam’s titular tune is a sung-spoken, clicking-guitar, tango-inspired rocker with an “everything about you is terrible” refrain. Then there is funny but forlorn “Pants Song,” sung by raspy-voiced Jason SweetTooth Williams as Jeremey’s father. By way of a subplot featuring a missing mom and a dad distracted by heartbreak, the lack of pants is a metaphor for a lack of self-esteem. When Pop gets his pants back on at musical’s end, he helps Michael help his son, and pushes “Be More Chill” toward a happy — if not still ominous — dénouement.
Director Stephen Brackett and Tony-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt (“Come From Away”) make the action swift, and the glossy, 80s-like setting sleek and techy without New Wave kitsch. No theater piece has made tech-nerdiness look or sound as modern and warm.