If every high school dram-com is about fitting in, each one needs something to set it apart. Mean Girls has a riotous script full of sharply drawn characters; Dear Evan Hansen has an inspired score with a vivid emotional center. Be More Chill, a frenetic and unnerving new musical that opened on Broadway tonight, has none of these things.
What it does have is an already-fervent fan base (last summer’s off-Broadway run sold out prior to opening) and a supercomputer chill pill that promises to make kids cool. It’s easy to see why the story has been striking a chord with young audiences online since its 2015 premiere at New Jersey’s Two River Theatre — an every-nerd trying to survive high school hell is standard YA fare (the musical is based on such a novel by Ned Vizzini). Just add propulsive pop-rock, and stir.
But Be More Chill is as confused and un-self-aware as a hormonal teenage boy — and nearly as reckless.
Fitting then, that it begins with one grousing in song that his porn won’t load so he can beat off before school. It’s funny, sure, and perfectly natural (no shame!). It’s also our first sign that the musical, with score by Joe Iconis and book by Joe Tracz, considers frustrated male desire its primary problem in need of solving. Not by teaching its protagonist that he’s not entitled to the girl he wants, or that he should simply be himself and love will find a way, but by tempting him with a pill that helps him say all the rights things to score.
Jeremy (Evan Hansen alum Will Roland) doesn’t want to be a hero, he sings in the opening number, he just wants to survive — and nab a date with Christine (Stephanie Hsu), a drama geek who, unlike Jeremy, doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. “Accept that you’re one of those guys who’ll be a virgin till he dies,” he laments after botching their first encounter. The only thing standing between Jeremy and life as an incel “masturbator” seems to be that magic little pill.
The first coeds on whom he tries out his new tricks are the most popular girls in school (played by Lauren Marcus and Katlyn Carlson), who wind up competing for him by the second act. A requisite Halloween party scene finds one of them dressed as a slutty baby, enticing Jeremy into bed and singing, “Do you wanna get inside my diaper, boy?” The next day at school, the other tells him, “I’m not just a sexy dog you can kick, Jeremy. I’m a person.”
But of course, she isn’t.
Psychoanalysis might reveal that Jeremy’s absent mother and mopey father, who refuses to put pants on, are the source of their son’s issues with women. For now we’ll have to lay them at the feet of Be More Chill’s creators (including director Stephen Brackett), whose nostalgic lens cloaks retrograde gender politics behind Atari-inspired aesthetics.
At least the Broadway production has toned down the orientalist panic previously aroused by a villainous avatar for the pill, played by Jason Tam under increasingly nefarious-looking wigs. As Jeremy’s discarded best friend, George Salazar stands out with the score’s best song, though his character seems merely coded as queer in a show lacking courage enough to follow through. Hsu’s character, Jeremy’s primary love interest, has evolved into the only girl on stage who’s neither sieve nor entirely offensive stereotype.
Still, Jeremy does precious little to deserve her. Nor does Be More Chill go to any great lengths to suggest that the pill has been wrong, and wrong-headed, from the start when it first insults Jeremy (“everything about you is so terrible”) then gives him awful, even dangerous, advice (“you want someone to like you, hate who they hate”). We’re meant to laugh at everything the chill pill says is wrong with Jeremy, but it’s hardly joking.
In the end Jeremy still has voices in his head, the loudest of which he says is his own. The problem is, he still hasn’t learned that the only thing he needs to be is more…himself.
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar
(photos: maria baranova)