The musical Be More Chill has some baggage. It’s about high school angst that verges on cliché, and it’s a showcase for the kind of head-banging pop, in this case by composer/lyricist Joe Iconis (Smash), that’s commonplace in today’s musical theater. It also has an out-there sci-fi premise: Hopelessly uncool high school sophomore Jeremy Heere (Dear Evan Hansen’s Will Roland) swallows a pill-shaped supercomputer called a SQUIP that implants itself in his brain and instructs him in the finer points of teenage social etiquette.
Despite its issues, including a slightly didactic book (by The Lightning Thief’s Joe Tracz), the thing just works – and works well.
The first act of Be More Chill, which opened Thursday at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is a high-tech high school survival story, a kind of a Black Mirror Evan Hansen. The overlong second act, which covers the consequences of Jeremy’s proverbial deal with the devil, owes a lot to Little Shop of Horrors. (The SQUIP, played by the sinuous Jason Tam, makes a teeth-gnashingly-perfect villain.) That accounts for Be More Chill’s tonal inconsistencies, and the show doesn’t engage enough with its descent into darker territory.
Still, who cares when the songs are this much fun? The music, while unambitious as compared to some of Iconis’s more adventurous contemporaries, has a willing-to-please tunefulness that keeps the show exciting all the way through. (The music outshines the lyrics, which occasionally lapse into banal non-phrases like “My feelings sink” and “My heart is like ‘Wow!'”) Where Iconis really excels is in his explosive, high-energy numbers, like the title number, our introduction to the edicts of Tam’s SQUIP, and the propulsive ode to teamwork, “Two-Player Game.”
The stellar performances rise above the high-school-musical cookie cutter. George Salazar, as Jeremy’s friend Michael, is a standout, more than matching his breakout turn in the 2016 Off-Broadway Tick, Tick… Boom! There isn’t a dud in the cast of ten. These actors, dancing and singing their hearts out as they revel in truly original new musical theater, are a joy to watch.