Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Be More Chill
High school junior Jeremy is a mess. Ever since his mother deserted the family, his sad sack father has hung around the house all day in his white underwear briefs (double meaning unintended, but fitting). Jeremy is upset because of the slow downloading on his laptop; he has been unable to download his porn and masturbate before having to set off for school ("I'm waiting for my porno to load/ My brain is gonna frickin' explode/ And now, of course, it's time to hit the road/ Which means I'll be uncomfortable all day").
The awkward Jeremy and his awkward, video game obsessed best friend are harassed by Rich, a bully who pastes letters on their backpacks which, when they are walking side by side, combine to read "BOYF-RIENDS". Jeremy signs up to perform in the school play ("It's a sign-up for the after school play/ It's a sign-up sheet for getting called gay") because he likes Christine, a sweet, dorky high school theatre mainstay. However, in short order, Jake, smooth and very popular high schooler, displays an interest in Christine which turns her head. Because the school is threatening to defund the school play because it is not popular, instead of performing Shakespeare, Mr. Reyes, the drama teacher, announces that "our production will be set in a "post apocalyptic future" rather than a pastoral forest, "instead of frolicking with fairies, there will be fleeing from Zombies."
Rich confesses to Jeremy that when he was a freshman, he was a dork, but he owns his respected, strong aggressiveness to the Squip. Although not an acronym, Squip passes for one when introduced in song on stage, and is employed in a quadruple rhyme with blip, hip and flip. "Quantum nanotechnology CPU/ the quantum computer in the pill/ Will travel through your blood until/ It implants in your brain and it tells you what to do." At his wit's end, Jeremy obtains and ingests the pill. The Squip inside his brain appears before Jeremy's eyes in the form of a swaggering, handsome young man, and proceeds to guide him on how to win female hearts and gain social status. It is not long until the Squip reveals himself to be one of an army of Squips using the bodies in which they are implanted to lure others into bondage to them. Eventually, Michael and Jeremy's father join together to try to rescue Jeremy, and... However, there is much in the way of teenage angst and science fiction danger.
The score (music and lyrics by Joe Iconis) is lively theatre rock with some ear pleasing melodies, and the lyrics (when not repeating the same short phrases repeatedly in modern pop rock style) are filled with very clever rhymes. The book (by Joe Tracz, based on the novel by Ned Vizzini), which gets somewhat chaotic late in the game, is an amalgam of any number of musicals seen at NYMF and other small venues from coast-to coast and is certainly viable. However, the deliberate flight from recognizable reality in the actions and dialogue of its characters, including unpleasantly gross anatomical references, reduce parts of the musical to lowest common denominator entertainment. This is carried over into the lyrics which ring false in both their gross ideation and in their quick, crowded rhymes. If Joe Iconis had thought about how Stephen Sondheim expressed unhappiness with the multiple rhymes that he put in the mouth of the unsophisticated Maria in West Side Story, I suspect that he would not have gone so much further down the garden path here. There are examples galore here, but here's just one. Listen to Jeremy's lyric response to discovering the writing on his and Michael's backpacks:
Be More Chill has some very entertaining, upbeat, rhythmic songs. "Upgrade" sung by the cast as Squip starts taking hold is particularly pulse quickening. It is at its considerable and most moving best when Michael, abandoned by Squip-transformed Jeremy, sneaks into Jake's Halloween party, and glumly hides out in the bathroom only to be trapped therein when other teenagers descend upon his sanctuary to relieve themselves:
Jeremy tells Christine that he envisioned his Squip as Keanu Reeves. In turn, Christine says that her Squip appeared to her as Hillary Clinton. As she begins to make an unrelated statement which begins with the words, "it's embarrassing", Jeremy interrupts by saying, "That's actually very good." Placed as it is at the conclusion of the musical, it tends to reduce all that has gone before to little more than an extended elections commercial aimed at young voters.
The energetic and enthusiastic, mostly young cast is a major asset. Will Connolly is an ingratiating presence as Jeremy. George Salazar retains our sympathy throughout without ever becoming maudlin, and his "Michael in the Bathroom" is pitch perfect. Eric William Morris smoothly and clearly depicts the growing menace in the initially ingratiating Squip. Stephanie Hsu is a charming Christine. The other male high school students, Jake and Rich, played by Jake Boyd and Gerard Canonico, convey their roles effectively. Katlyn Carlson (Chloe), Lauren Marcus (Brooke), and Katie Ladner (Jenna), although saddled with clichéd, underwritten roles, contribute youthful energy and strong vocalization which is essential to the pleasure on hand. Most of the cast doubles as additional Squips. Which brings us to Paul Whitty, who does triple duty playing Jeremy's dad, Mr. Reyes, and a scary stock boy delightfully.
Director Stephen Brackett maintains a lively pace in a production which maximizes the pleasures at hand. The energetic dancing has been choreographed by Chase Brock. The abstract two-level set by Dane Laffrey is lacking in specificity as to location, and has four support beams which break the visual flow for viewers.
Although there are elements that people of all ages can take pleasure from in this musical, teenagers are the ideal audience for Be More Chill. However, it is only fair to note that many parents would find it too explicit for children in their early teens. Those who have delightedly said "that was gross" in describing something that has put smiles on their faces also are likely to enjoy Be More Chill.
Be More Chill continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday 7 pm; Thursday - Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Wednesday 1 pm; Saturday & Sunday 3 pm) through June 28, 2015, at Two River Theater, Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theatre, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400 / online: www.trtc.org.
Be More Chill music and lyrics by Joe Iconis; book by Joe Tracz based on the novel by Ned Vizzini; directed by Stephen Brackett