NEW YORK — Humanity takes a scary step forward in the New Jersey suburbs, where an unassuming high school student discovers he can take a pill to be more chill (i.e., cool). That’s the premise of “Be More Chill,” an offbeat and utterly charming science fiction musical that opened at the Lyceum Theatre, March 10.
Featuring a book by Joe Tracz (based on a novel by Ned Vizzini) and music and lyrics by Joe Iconis, “Be More Chill” had its world premiere at the Two River Theatre in Red Bank in 2015. I reviewed it then, and chose it as one of my favorite New Jersey theater productions of that year. After a successful off-Broadway run last year, it is now moving to Broadway, and a film adaptation is also in development.
It has the same director, Stephen Brackett, as in Red Bank, and five of the 10 actors are the same. The costumes, by Bobby Frederick Tilley II, and scenic design, by Beowulf Boritt, are more elaborate and dazzling, but the show still feels a bit like a scruffy underdog — a big-hearted, wildly energetic concoction build around the theme of adolescent awkwardness.
It is significant, I think, that its most rousing song, “Michael in the Bathroom” is about feeling alone and left out of things, and its prettiest ballad, “A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into,” is a diary-like exploration of romantic uncertainty, with an unsettling twist at the end.
Will Roland plays Jeremy, an unassuming high school everyman with a love interest, Christine (Stephanie Hsu), who barely knows he exists; a best friend, Michael (George Salazar), who shares his interest in vintage video games; and a father (Jason Sweettooth Williams) who is so depressed he mopes around his house all day, in his underwear.
Even Jeremy’s wildest dreams are modest. “I don’t want to be a hero/Just wanna stay in the line/I’ll never be your Rob De Niro/For me, Joe Pesci is fine,” he sings. Michael tries to reassure him by telling him that guys like them are more popular in college, so if they can just get through the hell of high school, they’ll be okay.
Everything changes after Jeremy takes the mysterious “chill” pill, and The Squip (Jason Tam) appears. The Squip, whom only Jeremy can see and hear, looks and sounds like Keanu Reeves, and tells Jeremy what to do, in every situation, to ensure maximum popularity.
It all works, for a while. Until eventually, as you would expect in a story like this, it doesn’t, and Jeremy has to undo all of the harm he has been done and emerge chastened but wiser, a better person than he was before.
The other characters are Jeremy’s classmates: jock Jake (Britton Smith), bully Rich (Gerard Canonico), popular, boy-crazy Chloe (Katlyn Carlson), Chloe’s best friend and second banana Brooke (Lauren Marcus) and the gossippy Jenna (Tiffany Mann). Williams also plays Mr. Reyes, an oddball teacher who is directing aspiring actress Christine and some of the other characters in his own horror genre adaptation of Shakespeare, “A Midsummer Nightmare About Zombies.”
One of the best things about Tracz’s book and Iconis’ lyrics is that while most of the characters seem one-dimensional at first, they are given more sides, some quite surprising, in the course of the musical’s two acts. Every one of the play’s characters, in fact — except, perhaps, for Mr. Reyes and the unhuman Squip – becomes more than what he or she initially seems to be.
Maybe that’s why this play seems to resonate so well with young audiences. The misfits triumph. Putting up a smooth, assured façade is shown to be a pointless exercise. And no one, once you really get to know them, is all that “chill,” anyway.
“Be More Chill” is being presented at the Lyceum Theatre, at 149 W. 45th St. in New York. Shows are Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m. and Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Visit bemorechillmusical.com.