A version of this review of “Be More Chill” was first published for the Off Broadway version of the production in August 2018.
How can 150 million streams of a cast album be wrong? After a short run in New Jersey three years ago, the new musical “Be More Chill” has achieved widespread fame on the internet, stoked by a few concert performances at the Manhattan cabaret 54 Below.
A fully staged production now arrives on Broadway after an Off Broadway premiere last summer where young audiences squealed in delight at the introduction of every character, as if he or she were Queen Elsa or SpongeBob.
Based on the late Ned Vizzini’s 2004 cult YA novel, “Be More Chill” is a coming-of-age story with a promising sci-fi dark side. Nerdy high-school student Jeremy Heere (Will Roland, “Dear Evan Hansen”) swallows a pill-size super-computer, called The Squip, that will program him to be cool and therefore popular.
Unfortunately, The Squip fails to prevent Jeremy from making the most mundane rhymes when it comes to singing Joe Iconis’ repetitive score. You will no doubt jump ahead of the lyrics when the word “game” is mentioned. “Name” and then “same” are not far behind. Ditto “rad,” which is the prelude to “sad” and “bad.”
“Hero,” however, does receive a novel match-up. Jeremy, being a nerd, thinks that the old man in all those “Focker” movies is really cool and calls him “Rob De Niro,” who is better known in real life as Robert or occasionally Bobby. But Rob?
Iconis’ musical score can best be described the way fast-food chains sometimes advertise their processed chicken. It’s crispy. No matter that crispy is neither a flavor nor a tune.
Joe Tracz’s book gives us the obligatory costume party (think “Legally Blonde” and “Mean Girls”) just after the show’s half-way point. The Squip ought to have been working its cool magic inside Jeremy during the intermission, and yet Roland’s upbeat, nervous performance remains unchanged. Clearly, what Dr. Jekyll and the Nutty Professor ingested had a lot more kick.
On the other hand, The Squip provides a major costume makeover from designer Bobby Frederick Tilley II. After Jeremy swallows the pill, The Squip arrives on stage in the human form of actor Jason Tam, who’s there to be the epitome of chill. Which is odd, since Jeremy’s major nerdiness problem is that the other students think he’s gay. After all, he’s trying out for the school play, a postapocalyptic version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” This is one of those glasshouse moments in the theater: Didn’t Tracz tell his homophobic cool-kid characters that they were all in a stage musical?
But back to The Squip. Speaking his lines in a drawn-out Keanu Reeves impersonation, Tam sports two floor-length ensembles that look like something Bob Mackie might have designed for Sam Jaffe in “The Lost Horizon.” It’s Queer Squip for the Straight Guy.
Director Stephen Brackett takes the “Spelling Bee” route in casting adult (often very adult) actors in the teenage roles. What was charming years ago in a far better musical comes off slightly sad here. These overwrought people on stage recall the street performers in nearby Times Square.