It is rare that a show that premieres in a New Jersey theater gains a massive online following; it is even rarer for this to lead to a sold-out off-Broadway run. But for “Be More Chill” this is exactly how it happened, all thanks to a devoted teenage fanbase that fell in love with a bootleg video and a casting recording. If nothing else, this musical proves the power of the people.
When you enter Pershing Square Signature Center, you’ll likely see massive throngs of adolescents, many of them wearing merchandise that replicates costumes from the show. But wearing t-shirts is not the only way they prove their devotion, they also give thunderous applause and laughter after every song and joke and key moment — and they know exactly when they are coming. The audience at “Be More Chill” is as devoted, emotional, and loud as those at the recently-closed, record-breaking revival of “Hello Dolly.” However, “Hello Dolly” is a beloved classic musical with period costumes, massive sets, hilarious gags, and canonical songs. “Be More Chill,” on the other hand, is a small-scale musical about a group of high schoolers.
Logically, the question is: so what makes this show so beloved?
The answer isn’t simple. Perhaps the show just speaks to teenagers of this generation. Maybe it’s something in the Joe Iconis songs or the Joe Tracz book, or even in Stephen Brackett’s direction. The angst, the crushes, the anxiety, the annoying parents, the cliques, it all just vibe with teenagers and their experiences. But how is “Be More Chill” different from, say, “Mean Girls” or “Dear Evan Hansen”? In many ways, it’s no different; of anything this musical handles less important themes. What makes “Be More Chill” most distinct is its science fiction element.
The musical tells the story of a quintessential loner, Jeremy, played by Will Roland (of recent “Dear Evan Hansen” fame). His only friend is a social outcast and stoner, Michael, played by George Salazar, who has become a rockstar celebrity to teens across the country because of this role, especially his song “Michael in the Bathroom.” Jeremy has a crush on the quirky Christine (Stephanie Hsu, fresh from “SpongeBob Squarepants: The Musical”). However, Christine is not interested in Jeremy, and neither are any of the kids at school. Jeremy is offered a grey oblong pill called a Squilp that contains a nanocomputer that will tell him what to do to “be more chill” and become cool.
Unsurprisingly, he takes the pill. The Squilp is represented as a Keanu Reeves lookalike, played by Jason Tam. In a rather expected turn of events, the Squilp makes him abandon his only friend Michael, and date a cool girl, Brooke (Lauren Marcus), instead of the nerdy girl he likes. Jeremy becomes less and less like himself as the Squilp manipulates him. Chaos ensues, and Jeremy must decide what’s more important: being cool or being yourself.
Rarely is every single cast member in a show spectacular. But in “Be More Chill” everyone is impressive, hilarious, and superbly talented. In addition to Will Roland, George Salazar, Lauren Marcus, Stephanie Hsu, and Jason Tam, Jason Sweetooth Williams (as all the adults), Katyln Carlson (as the queen bee Chloe), Gerard Canonico (as the bully Rich), Britton Smith (as the jock heartthrob Jake), and especially Tiffany Mann (as the gossip Jenna) all rock the house down.
It is very easy to dismiss everything about this show, from the sometimes annoying teenage fans to the ridiculous sci-fi plot, to the campy lyrics. However, “Be More Chill” is not a show to ignore; it is likely going to head to Broadway soon, so now is the time to embrace the craze. The show may be somewhat immature, but it speaks to an entire generation, so it is doing something right.