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Be More Chill, Merrily We Roll Along

Posted 3/14/19

Chill reviewed  by Fern Siegel for

High-school angst is becoming a winning formula on Broadway: The Prom, Choir Boy, Dear Evan Hansen and now Be More Chill at the Lyceum.

Based on Ned Vizzini’s 2004 young adult novel, Be More Chill mines teen turmoil with broad strokes, replete with stock characters and social messages. Unlike Hansen, it does so with a light, almost comic-book touch. It’s not a parody, but it leans more on comedy than commentary, though it warns about the dangers of technology.

The musical, music and lyrics by Joe Iconis and book by Joe Tracz, centers on the tribulations of Jeremy (Will Roland), a nerdy boy who bemoans his lack of popularity. He spends his days either ignored or bullied at school and nights with best friend Michael (George Salazar) playing video games.

In fact, the architecture of Be More Chill feels like a retro videogame; the goal is for Jeremy to find himself. He navigates the world of popular girls (Katyln Carlson) and (Lauren Marcus), the quirky girl he likes (a terrific Stephanie Hsu), and the cool guy (Britton Smith), who doesn’t know he’s alive.

To achieve success, he needs help. And he finds it in a simple capsule, known as a squip, which promises to change his life. It does, but with an unexpected twist.

That’s the real thrust of the show. The pill acts as a quantum computer that implants in his brain, programming Jeremy’s thoughts and behavior. Its outer manifestation, the Squip (Jason Tam) is both his hallucination and a stand-in for an overreliance on tech (or drugs) to chart our lives. There are also shout-outs to Mountain Dew, eBay and Eminem.  

For the GenZ generation, Be More Chill speaks to their experience in a sassy and visceral way. It addresses digital realities, where kids curate lives — real or imagined. It also reveals coming-of-age stress. During its initial run off-Broadway, the show’s electro-pop soundtrack gained 150 million streams — and producers took notice.

Though many of the songs sound similar, there are tuneful standout ballads, such as “Loser Geek Whatever,” “Michael in the Bathroom,” “I Love Play Rehearsal” and “The Pants Song.” Bobby Frederick Tilley II costumes are zippy, while the ensemble, directed by Stephen Brackett, is tight. Hsu and Salazar make the most of their roles, as does Tam in the guise of a cartoon villain.

The entertaining, high-energy show isn’t dramatically demanding or deep, but it makes heartfelt points about adolescence. And for the generation it targets, it clicks.

Decades earlier, Stephen Sondheim, music and lyrics, and George Furth, book, wrote Merrily We Roll Along, a musical that has seen various revisions and revivals. It begins in middle age, asking: “How did we get here from there?” Then works back in time to explain.

Debuting on Broadway in 1981, Merrily added material from a 1934 Kaufman-Hart play, on which it’s based. The current incarnation is sharp, witty and hugely entertaining, thanks to Charley (Manu Narayan), Frank (Ben Steinfeld) and Mary (a fantastic Jessie Austrian), who owns the role.

Now off-Broadway at the Laura Pels, the show tackles love, friendship, divorce, and career highs and lows with inventive staging and director Noah Brody’s lively pacing.

The glorious songs, which feature some of Sondheim’s standards — “Not A Day Goes By,” “Old Friends” “Opening Doors” and “Now You Know” — are as crisp and meaningful as ever. The Roundabout’s revival does the show proud.  —Fern Siegel