A tale of nerdy teen angst and technology by songwriter Joe Iconis and bookwriter Joe Tracz, this geek-love, sci-fi, high school musical bombed during its initial 2015 run at Two River Theater in New Jersey. Rather than go away, however, it became an internet sensation when its electro-pop soundtrack miraculously hit 200 million-plus streams, wound up a fan-art favorite on Tumblr, attracted commercial producers and sold out last summer’s Off Broadway run with a predominantly tween crowd that camped out post-show for mere glimpses of the cast.
That same energetic cast is on board for this fresh Broadway run of “Be More Chill.” The musical’s storyline is driven by the friendship of dweebs Jeremy (Will Roland) and Michael (George Salazar), and the lengths that Jeremy will go to eschew loserhood and finally get the girl, Christine (Stephanie Hsu).
That Jeremy’s transition involves a dangerous mega-computer-in-a-pill called a Squip, personified by a megalomaniacal, Keanu Reeves-like presence (Jason Tam), is what drives “Be More Chill,” comically and even thrillingly at times. There is a breathless quality to everything that squeaky (but belting) baritone Roland does in his attempt to break free and be cool.
And those thrills aren’t just for kids. Traditional theatergoing audiences that tend to be older than the teens and twentysomethings that packed the Off Broadway run will find delicious favor in Iconis’ contagious melodies and tricky lyrics.
In many ways, the icy bounce of “Be More Chill” and the silly videogame drama of “Two-Player Game” will remind anyone who came of age in the 1980s of New Wave hits from “Rock Lobster” to “Cars.” The ‘c-c-c-come on’ refrain of the fast-paced “More Than Survive” could have come from the British Invasion of the 1960s or the Ramones’ invasion of C.B.G.B’s in the 1970s. Cast members’ Katlyn Carlson, Tiffany Mann and Lauren Marcus’ raucous “The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire)” is a direct, gossipy tribute to stage composer Charles Strause’s “The Telephone Hour” from 1960’s “Bye Bye Birdie.”
Then there’s the universal story behind “Be More Chill,” which involves unrequited love, the fight for the fair damsel, concerned loved ones, and a mind-controlling bad guy — although there may be more mentions of Mountain Dew, eBay and premature Eminem obituaries than in the average musical to hit Broadway. Plus, with its willingness to jokingly promote drugs and promiscuity, this is hardly a children’s musical.
In the move from Off Broadway, several Act I entrances — from the musical’s first Squip abuser, Rich (Gerard Canonico), and from Jason’s father, Mr. Heere (Jason SweetTooth Williams, playing several roles) — have been trimmed. Some bits and pieces of the relationship between Jeremy and Michael also seem to have been reduced or tamped down from the Off Broadway version.
Thanks to those changes, the Broadway “Be More Chill” feels more even and flows more smoothly than it did Off Broadway. On occasion you missed the frenetic, awkward pace of the original: the Off Broadway “Be More Chill” felt gawky, quick and weird, like its subject matter. The new “Be More Chill,” on the other hand, seems to want to grow up faster and get to the point more sharply. Still, rushed or relaxed, “Be More Chill” is Broadway’s wiliest and socially savviest night out for teens and parents alike.