‘Be More Chill,’ is a Mind-Blasting Musical Comedy
Posted by caroleditosti
From its clever sets, to its powerful performances to its high-energy music and interesting development of the “coming of age” nano-technology enhanced “hero” journey, the Broadway musical Be More Chill is unforgettable entertainment. The show trends deeper than what some critics have posited and throws a number of curve balls, morphing away from the prototypical “teen angst” genre plot-lines, that have been around since forever.
The production, based on the titular novel by Ned Vizzini (2004) with music and lyrics by Joe Iconis and book by Joe Tracz is a frenetic, suspenseful, thrill-ride, propelled by the powerful, gorgeous voices of the ensemble. Tiffany Mann, who portrays Jenna Rolan, and George Salazar who portrays the “hero’s” friend Michael Mell are anointed knockouts, Will Roland the “hero-anti-hero” who takes us on his mental journey to Be More Chill, convinces roundly as he morphs from plaintive, outsider, loser, underdog to the suave, perfection-laced, enviable top cat of his New Jersey high school social hierarchy. Stephanie Hsu is Christine his conscience, his authentic “other half” his love interest. This glorious, well choreographed (by Chase Brock), vibrant production is cleverly shepherded by Stephen Brackett.
The storyline is an ironic spin-out and twitting/send-up of recent techno-films and social media hype fueled by Instagram and Twitter. It gyrates with ancillary references to computer geeks and dweebs, Incels and dorks and the power domination of digital dictator wannabes, A.I. and computers that animate with a H.A.L. complex (reference to the super computer in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey).
The story is futuristic modern, and almost believable as we consider scientific advancements in nano-technology and chip implantation. The MO of seeing people and events through one fascist perspective is also given a spin. This stance that reflects the most unenlightened of our cultural folkways, demeaning humanity and cauterizing empathy by categorizing individuals as “winners or losers,” is ridiculed. Be More Chill shreds the superficiality and unreality of success values mirrored in our cultural institutions, for example, the fashion industry, the advertising industry, the financial industry, etc. which dictate what it means to be “with it” or “beautiful” or “chill.” These values are impossible but for their added purpose to insure profitability and competition between and among genders and ethnic groups. Such success values have been employed as a tool of fascism to decry human beings’ souls and spirits and perpetuate divisions among people instead of emphasizing our shared humanity. This theme is emphasized and the protagonist learns about this by the conclusion.
The thematic threads initiate in a seemingly simplistic plot of “loser kid wants to fit in.” Not! In “More Than Survive” Jeremy Heere (the sensitive Will Roland) identifies how he defines himself as a loser; he has internalized the greater cultural values and applied them to his own individual situation. Though the milieu is high school, “the loser” metaphor Jeremy uses to abuse and torment himself is everywhere in the larger culture, the macrocosm, which the high school reflects as a microcosm. It has even been expressed with vehemence in the culture of the current White House, and especially to denigrate individuals “viewed” as enemies.
This irony enhances the production’s currency and amplifies the theme that this designation of identity (winners vs. losers) should be anathema. Looking deeper, we note in the production that the winner/loser construct is employed by the miserable protagonist Jeremy, who internalizes the cultural success mores then tortures himself with them because he continually falls short in his own perception. And the construct is employed by the unscrupulous SQUIP (the wicked, manipulative Jason Tam) to manipulate, con and gain power. Unfortunately, whether for young or old, rich or poor, the construct promulgates noxious values that destroy inner peace and force individuals to further harm themselves to stop that destruction in a tragic cycle. This is one of many vital truths that by the conclusion Jeremy begins to understand as he moves on his journey deeper into his own psyche and soul and attempts to heal.
We “get” the hell and misery Jeremy experiences as an “invisible nothing” who is tormented by bully Rich Goranski (the excellent Gerard Canonico) in the high school bathroom. Jeremy just wants to make it to the next day without pain. And he wants to be with Christine (the quirky, adorable and versatile Stephanie Hsu) who adores being in plays. We catch the humor and irony as she sings with fervor “I Love Play Rehearsal.” Jeremy follows her to audition for the school play but is overawed by her presence.
When Rich offers him an opportunity to become “visible” to himself and others, Jeremy is intrigued. He must do something to annihilate that loser part of himself which he interprets as ugly to others and himself. He gets “assistance,” but not through alcohol, opioids, drugs, joining white supremacist groups, cults, etc., or other means that individuals use to nullify their pain and seek comfort and/or acceptance. The “assistance” he gets is appealing for a “geek,” “nerd,” potential “Incel” like Jeremy, but as it turns out, it appeals to anyone who is not in touch with their own being.
The assistance comes in the form of a SQUIP (Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor) that Rich tells him about in “The Squip Song.” Though Jeremy has a close friend Michael with whom he discusses swallowing this illegal, pill-like processor from Japan, he ignores Michael’s counsel and encouragement in “Two-Player Game.” This rousing song with projections, lighting and multicolored staging frames, places the two friends within the “Apocalypse of the Damned,” Level 9 video game during which they pledge friendship to “catch each other’s backs.” Such pledges turn upside-down; Michael has greater inner strength. Jeremy succumbs to his weaknesses and seeks the change he believes the SQUIP can bring him in the song “Be More Chill.”
The SQUIP (Jason Tam in a superbly nuanced and mesmerizing performance) animates and becomes the guide through Jeremy’s own self-made virtual reality game in his mind. Only Jeremy visualizes, syncs with and “processes” the SQUIP who mentors him in how to negotiate the high school social strata and knock out “adversaries” with such aplomb they become his friends. To converse with him in Jeremy’s mind the SQUIP conforms to whatever celebrity or anime Jeremy chooses, if he doesn’t like the default mode which is Keanu Reeves (a send-up of the film franchise The Matrix-1999, The Matrix Reloaded-2003, etc.).
In this funny scene, the SQUIP offers to change to other personas, i.e. Beyonce, Batman or a sexy anime cat girl with a tail. Jeremy identifies with the default mode Reeves. Tam is hysterical as he replicates Reeves and dresses in outfits suggested by The Matrix (thanks to the hot, clever costume design by Bobby Frederick Tilley II). Tam’s SQUIP speaks and moves like Reeves, but with sinister tinges of evil, dark insinuation. He is charming and Tam mines just enough enough of the SQUIP’s likability to make him adorable fun. Tam’s performance is “over-the-top” fabulous in its nuanced development and march toward nefariousness.
By degrees, the SQUIP helps Jeremy transform into another being; his optic nerve changes and Jeremy jettisons his dweeby glasses. He uncannily behaves with such perfection, he masters the right conversation for every social interaction, thus he manipulates every person, regardless of circumstance to get what he wants. No girl is too “Stacy” for him as they perceive him as a Chad (Incel-speak for master-race male and female physical types). Brooke (Lauren Marcus) and Chloe (Katyln Carlson), who are both “Stacys” find him attractive and attempt to be with him in the song “Do You Wanna Ride?” which Marcus and Carlson sing with humorous, ripe suggestion.
However, Jeremy doesn’t feel comfortable in this new persona until the SQUIP gradually brainwashes him to release his personality including his ethics, kindness and sensitivity to achieve “success.” We see how the SQUIP in “Be More Chill Part 2,” Sync Up” and “Upgrade” gets off on the power-trip of dominating Jeremy’s every thought. Using the SQUIP’s advice to overcome his fears and suppress his true self, Jeremy lacks the understanding and confidence to accept his own individuality.
Though Jeremy learns to obey all the SQUIP’s commands (he reminds us of a well-tuned robotic psychopath…especially in the latter part of ACT II) Jeremy still can’t manipulate Christine to like him (“A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into.”) Her authenticity, perceptiveness and rejection of superficial values give her the power to rise above and sit in her own confidence. By the end of Act I Jeremy is convinced that he must “give it his all,” ignore his friend Michael and eliminate all elements of Jeremy 1.0 (“the old school analog”) and upgrade himself to give “popularity” a try (“Loser Geek Whatever”). Accepting the SQUIP completely, in his virtual reality game, he is “ready player 1” (a reference to the titular film by Spielberg). The lyrics to the song reference acceptance of a noxious narcissistic attitude when Jeremy sings, “I’ve earned the right to selfishly, be all for one and one for me.” Of course, it is this attitude the other students desire. Like Jeremy, they are unhappy and miserable feeling like they are their own definition of “losers.”
By Act II the SQUIP goes full throttle in uber control mode. This develops in an explosion that reveals the hidden conflicts and the dangers of “the SQUIP UNIVERSE” which entraps, then metastasizes so the other students (who are “tired of being the person that everyone thinks they are”) are synced together. Tam’s SQUIP effectively sings how this can occur in “The Pitiful Children.” Meanwhile, the SQUIP has become the full blown psychopathic dictator who will “not be shut down” or kicked out of Jeremy’s or others’ psyches easily. This metaphoric symbolism is iconic. How does one remove internalized fascist values that have been growing in cultural social consciousness since before we were born?
In a worsening irony, it appears that Jeremy has moved over toward becoming a robotic anti-human manipulator. He even refers to his father as a loser from his exalted, narcissistic height of success. Mr. Heere, the excellent Jason Sweettooth Williams who plays multiple roles, brings down the house with George Salazar’s Michael in “The Pants Song” as they join forces to restore Jeremy to “his right mind.” Another “bring down the house number” Salazar sings by himself is “Michael in the Bathroom.” Salazar’s fury, hurt, shock, manifests palpably so that we completely empathize with Michael. All of us have been where he has been emotionally. Salazar rocks the song with dignity and power.
The production was workshopped regionally, shaped, with prodigious effort and its music shared cleverly on Social Media before it landed Off Broadway in a limited run and sold-out crowds at the Pershing Square Signature Center. It has been adroitly enhanced for its open-ended run on Broadway. The stylized sets remind one of a video game that we enter with the cast. And the production is highly metaphoric. Like Jeremy, we are the protagonists of our own video games/films/plays. This metaphor is realized and extended throughout this production’s artistic design.
Kudos to Beowulf Boritt (Scenic Design) Bobby Frederick Tilley II (Costume Design) Tyler Micoleau (Lighting Design) Ryan Rumery (Sound Design) Alex Basco Koch (Projection Design) Dave Bova (Wig and Make Up Design) J. David Brimmer (Fight Diretor) Michael Aarons (Music Coordinator) Emily Marshall (Music Direction and Vocal Arrangements) Charlie Rosen (Music Supervision and Orchestrations) Chase Brock (Choreography).
Special praise for Alex Basco Koch’s projections which suggested brain synapse patterns, processing chips, electrical pulsations, video games and more.
About caroleditostiCarole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is an Entertainment Journalist, unpublished novelist, poet and playwright. Writing is my life. When I don't write I am desolate. Carole Di Tosti has over 1000 articles, reviews, and other writings online. Carole Di Tosti writes for Theater Pizzazz and other New York theater websites; Carole Di Tost free-lanced for VERVE and wrote for Technorati for 2 years until the site changed its focus and Blogcritics which is archived. Carole Di Tosti covers premiere film festivals in the NY area:: Tribeca FF, NYFF, DOC NY, Hamptons IFF, NYJewish FF. She also covers SXSW film.
Posted on May 11, 2019, in Broadway, NYC Theater Reviews and tagged Be More Chill, George Salazar, Gerard Canonico, Jason Tam, Joe Iconis, Joe Tracz, katlyn Carlson, Lauren Marcus, Ned Vizzini, Stephanie Hsu, Tiffany Mann, Will Roland. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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