What’s that joyful, rowdy, roof-raising noise shaking things up on Broadway with the highest decibel count around? It’s Be More Chill, a rock-the-house teen musical phenom looking to get in on the action being generated by Dear Evan Hansen, Mean Girls and The Prom. The strange thing is that Be More Chill almost died in vitro. When the show first tested the waters at a nowhere theater in Jersey four years ago, the critics shot it down. But the bastards couldn’t kill it. When the show moved Off-Broadway for nine weeks in 2018, you couldn’t get a ticket. Expect the Broadway version to turn up the heat. How the hell does that happen? Start with social media, YouTube videos and a cast recording that’s been streamed over 300 million times and counting. The audiences who made this show happen digitally are now making pilgrimages to the Lyceum Theater to see those songs done live by a talented young cast with enough juice to ignite every light on Broadway.
And all this for a musical that starts with a geek loser kid, Jeremy Heere (a stellar Will Roland), sitting in bed waiting for the porn to load on his computer and worrying about being bullied, or worse, at high school and dying a virgin. Talk about a universal theme.
The source material for the book by Joe Tracz is a 2004 novel by Ned Vizzini, a young-adult specialist who died at 32, an apparent suicide. And though anxiety figures in the lives of the characters in Be More Chill, the show is lifted or, you might say, uplifted by the irresistible score of the mega-skilled Joe Iconis. His songs range from rock (“Upgrade” “The Smartphone Hour”) and dance (“Halloween”) to pop (“More Than Survive,“ “Be More Chill”) and ear-worm ballads (“A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into”).
Jeremy lives with his dad (Jason SweetTooth Williams) who hasn’t gone out of the house or even worn pants since his wife walked out. Jeremy pours his heart out to his best (and only) friend Michael (George Salazar). Their gamer-kid duet to “Two-Player Game” is a rousing anthem to personal connection in a vid-world dedicated to drowning the personal out. Michael is clearly drawn to Jeremy sexually, but his friend only has eyes for Christine Canigula (a live-wire Stephanie Hsu), a theater girl coping with her own misfit status as she prepares to star in the school’s zombie-apocalypse version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If you’re sensing a Little Shop of Horrors vibe, you’re right on the money.
Change kicks in when Jeremy spends his bar mitzvah money to buy a Squip, a jagged little pill with a bite-sized computer that is supposed to make you cool once you wash it down with green Mountain Dew. The Squip manifests itself as a human (Jason Tam) who only Jeremy can see and hear. Costumed like Keanu Reeves in his Matrix best, Tam is a riot of raunchy advice about how Jeremy should dress and act to connect with the school hotties. That means dumping Michael, whose big loneliness number “Michael in the Bathroom” is a showstopper for the excellent, award-caliber Salazar.
Be More Chill offers teachable moments galore, but luckily none of them get in the way of the show’s explosive high spirits. Director Stephen Brackett and choreographer Chase Brock keep the action hopping and the sound-level deafening, a wise decision considering that Be More Chill never achieves the touching gravity of Dear Evan Hansen or the sharp wit that writer Tina Fey brings to Mean Girls. But, hot-damn, does this show know its audience. By the time Jeremy belts out his final number, “Voices in My Head,” you’ll be hearing those voices, too, in a wow of a musical that comes on like gangbusters.
“C-c-c’mon, c-c-c’mon/Go! Go!” sings Jeremy. Good advice.