The Squip (Jason Tam) has finally consumed Broadway. From humble beginnings in Red Bank, New Jersey to a sold-out off-Broadway run last summer, the key protagonist of Be More Chill has worked his insidious magic all the way to the marquee of the Lyceum Theatre. Diehard theater geeks are probably familiar with the story of the show’s meteoric rise, but for those who aren’t, here’s the timeline:
In 2004, the late Ned Vizzini wrote the teen novel, Be More Chill. The story-about an outcast high schooler named Jeremy Heere (Will Roland) who takes a personality transforming pill-was critically praised. The New York Times Book Review declared it “so accurate that is should come with a warning.” Composer and lyricist Joe Iconis, along with book writer Joe Tracz, adapted the work into a musical where it premiered at NJ’s Two River Theater in 2015. Audiences there devoured the piece, prompting a cast recording. By April 2018, it had been streamed over 90 million times. Three months later, midtown’s Pershing Square Signature Center hosted another incarnation and by the end of its smash hit run in September, producers announced that they were taking it to Broadway. Through social media and digital platforms, the teen-centered tale has amassed a global audience. Following the first week of previews, it broke box office records at The Lyceum Theatre. Buzz is bliss for crowd psychology and revenue.
And now, some thoughts from a steer who strayed from the herd: The fervor for Be More Chill is completely lost on me. It’s certainly not due to a lack of energy from this young and fiercely talented cast. Nor is the energy deficit caused by the audience hubbub which–at Saturday’s preview — was akin to Queen’s 1985 Live Aid performance.
What is lacking is cohesion, heart, and originality.
Iconis and Tracz have attempted to string together genres of horror, science fiction, camp, comedy, and drama. Yet through all of the strobes, multi-colored costumes, lively choreography, and amped electric guitars, we’re left with cookie cutter characters that we’ve seen before and care little about.
Already, the show has drawn comparisons to its contemporary, Dear Evan Hansen. Both musicals feature an outcast protagonist seeking approval at any cost. Both Evan and Jeremy are struggling with single parent and girlfriend relationships. Both of them undergo significant transformations which cause repercussions for everyone around them. Yet Dear Evan Hansen is much more tender and universal in the way it portrays depression and exclusion. In that way, it becomes more universal. Be More Chill focuses solely on the teenage experience and consequently, it alienates everyone outside of that demographic. It also suffers a timeframe identity. While the program states that it is set in the present, Beowulf Boritt‘s eighties-centric neon framed set — along with references to Pac Man, Crystal Pepsi, and Hot Pockets–suggest that we’re living in an arcade game from days passed.
Back to the Squip. Within the first 30 minutes, we learn that it is:
A Grey Oblong Pill
A Quantum Nanotechnology CPU
The Quantum Computer in the Pill
Will travel through your blood until
it implants in your brain and tells you what to do
The Squip is also costumed like the Matrix and speaks in a Keanu Reeves voice–another choice that doesn’t align with the supposed present.
Iconis and Trazcz have lifted identical tropes from sources including The Wizard of Oz and Pippin. Is the Squip not more than the leading player from Pippin? Likely not when he says:
Ladies and gentleman, we apologize sincerely for not giving you the finale we promised. it seems our…extraordinary young gentleman has decided to…compromise his aspiration. But i know there are many of you out there, waiting to perform that one perfect act…Our Grande Finale! If you decide to do so, we’ll be there…waiting…anytime you want us…why we’re right inside your heads…and we promise you Sets! Lights! Costumes! And a short…but spectacular career.
Perhaps the show serves as a warning against artificial intelligence. With technological domination, we can be mentally and socially manipulated. Again, not a unique concept even if the source material was written in 2004.
Like Hair, Pippin, Rent, Spring Awakening, Dear Evan Hansen, and many that have gone before, themes of ostracization, bullying, and teenage angst will thrive as long as civilization exists. These are fertile ideas for the stage but these aforementioned musicals handled them with finesse. In this case, one just wishes that the depictions would be less noisy, more focused and more, well..chill.
Be More Chill. Lyceum Theatre (149 West 45th Street between 6th and 7th Ave., NYC. For tickets and information, visit https://bemorechillmusical.com/