If you aren’t already familiar with Be More Chill, a Broadway musical that opened Sunday, it’s likely a teen in your life can clue you in.
The show, adapted from the YA novel by Ned Vizzini about an anxious high schooler who takes a pill to become popular, originally premiered in New Jersey in 2015, and, despite lukewarm reviews, slowly found a cult following, with a cast album that’s been streamed tens of millions of times. Needless to say, the show has serious buzz, with The Wall Street Journal noting, “It’s gonna hit big,” and a movie adaptation already in the works.
Unfortunately, for all the excitement of another musical aimed at young people, this one lacks the emotional depth of Dear Evan Hansen, the powerful music of Spring Awakening, or the mostly-sharp satire of Mean Girls (though it does have a very similar number about teens on Halloween!).
Meet Jeremy (Dear Evan Hansen‘s Will Roland), a nerdy high school outsider who just wants to be popular and get his manic pixie dream theater girl of a crush Christine (an over-the-top Stephanie Hsu) to kiss him. His first idea is to join the activity she likes, but the opening number, “More Than Survive,” finds him singing, “It’s a sign up sheet for the after-school play! It’s a sign up sheet for getting called gay!”
Um, what year is this?
It’s grating, and makes it difficult to connect with or care about any of the characters
After a run-in with cool bully Rich (Spring Awakening‘s Gerard Canonico), Jeremy is told he can be popular, too, he just needs to ingest a supercomputer in pill-sized form called “The Squip” (a funny, Keanu Reeves-esque Jason Tam) to instruct him on his every move. Naturally, things go south fast.
Directed by Stephen Brackett, the show is a technicolor, high energy swirl of buzzwords and ideas that a corporate boardroom thought might appeal to Today’s Youth but miss the mark. An extremely forgettable pop-rock score by Joe Iconis? Check. Some jokes and songs about our smartphone addictions/the dangers of tech? Yup. A tossed-in Ruth Bader Ginsberg name-check and a random ending revelation about a character being bi? You’d better believe it.
Some of Be More Chill works. It’s a fun and rare idea for a musical to have a sci-fi twist, and as Jeremy’s sidekick best friend Michael, George Salazar gives a funny and empathetic performance; his second act ballad “Michael in the Bathroom” is an emotional and musical high point. But Michael is an exception: a majority of the students appear to be cartoons all dialed up to 12 for the entire run time, with no tongue-in-cheek wink to the audience letting on it’s satire. The choice is grating, and makes it difficult to connect with or care about any of the characters.
More unfortunately, two of those students are dim, pretty popular girls who appear to exist solely for the audience to laugh at. The story wouldn’t change at all if these young women (portrayed by Katlyn Carlson and Lauren Marcus) were smart, or mean, or athletic, or just about any other adjective other than the oldest high school stereotypes about teenage girls in the book.
It’s more than a bit disappointing that a show that centers its messaging on being yourself spends a not-insignificant portion of its run time reminding people that Jeremy is Unique and Good because he is an anxious “loser, geek, whatever” while these young women are not worthy of the same compassionate consideration. It’s far from the first show to do this, obviously, but it sucks that this holdover from another era remains.
Maybe I should just be more chill? Perhaps. But the recent surge of musicals aimed at the teen experience — the aforementioned Dear Evan Hansen, this season’s heartfelt The Prom — show the ways that coming-of-age tales can twist and turn to meet the moment they are arriving in.
But Be More Chill doesn’t grapple with the issues right in front of its face. It wants to say something profound about the pressures of being a young person in 2019, but instead settles for a stereotype-filled retrograde story straight out of the ’80s.