Review: Anxious Teenagers Learn to ‘Be More Chill’ on a Big Stage


It seems you can’t set foot in a Broadway theater these days without running into a noisy passel of high school students. Not in the lobby, though that might be refreshing given the general grayness of theatergoing audiences. The kids I’m talking about have commandeered the stage, to let the world know — preferably in song — that it’s not easy being teen.

Usually embodied by performers at least a decade older than the characters they’re portraying, Broadway’s swelling throng of anguished adolescents may all share a common grudge against life (and more often than not a basic plotline). But they mercifully have different ways of expressing their grievances, in shows as different as the sophisticated, brooding “Dear Evan Hansen,” the smart-mouthed “Mean Girls” and the big-hearted “The Prom.”

Now, after selling out its limited run Off Broadway last summer, the rabidly eager “Be More Chill,” which opened on Sunday at the Lyceum Theater, has joined the crowded field of shows about hormonally-overcharged outsiders longing for acceptance. While its characters, inevitably, learn that being popular isn’t everything, the show’s investors would no doubt beg to differ.

Adapted by Joe Iconis (songs) and Joe Tracz (book) from Ned Vizzini’s appealing young adult novel, “Be More Chill” has already broken the Lyceum house record for a single week of ticket sales. If it sustains that momentum, it will be partly because this latest entry in the puberty musical sweepstakes has traits that undeniably set it apart from its competition.

For one thing, it is — by cold critical standards — the worst of the lot, with a repetitive score, painfully forced rhymes, cartoonish acting and a general approach that mistakes decibel level (literally and metaphorically) for emotional intensity. But this ostensible amateurishness may be exactly what sells “Be More Chill” to its young target audience.

Alone among Broadway musicals, “Be More Chill” feels as if it could have been created by the teenagers it portrays, or perhaps by even younger people imagining what high school will be like. Though its production values have been souped up since I saw it in August, the show’s current incarnation — which features the same cast and is again directed by Stephen Brackett — remains a festival of klutziness that you could imagine being put together in the bedrooms and basements of young YouTubers.

In fact, it was through social media that “Be More Chill” acquired its ever-expanding fan base after an initial, critically dismissed run at Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J., in 2015. The cast recording inspired a staggering number of storyboard art presentations and lip-synced video performances on YouTube and when it opened Off Broadway, its score had been streamed more than 150 million times.

But like the leading characters of “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Mean Girls,” Jeremy learns that popularity comes at a dehumanizing price. His hour of reckoning takes place during a performance of a school play about a zombie apocalypse, during which he wrestles with his bad cyber angel.

He is assisted by his bestie, the forever gauche Michael Mell (the highly emotive George Salazar), whom Jeremy had abandoned on the road to social success. He is also inspired by selfless love — for the madcap Christine Canigula (a hyperkinetic Stephanie Hsu).

This all sounds like more fun than it is — at least for anyone over the age of 21. (That’s a generous cutoff point.) The acting, singing and dancing (choreographed by Chase Brock) are all, to put it kindly, frenetic. The set (by Beowulf Boritt), lighting (Tyler Micoleau) costumes (Bobby Frederick Tilley II) and projections (Alex Basco Koch) bring to mind bright fan fiction comic books drawn in fluorescent crayon.

Despite a lively production number that brings the classic “Telephone Hour” scene from “Bye Bye Birdie” into the present (as “The Smartphone Hour,” led by the powerhouse Tiffany Mann), the show’s cultural and technological frames of reference aren’t truly of the moment. Much of “Be More Chill” could have been staged in the late 20th century, when the first “Matrix” movie came out, without seeming out of place or even prescient.

But it may be its very lack of chillness that has allowed “Be More Chill” to capture so many young hearts. None of the characters on stage really look like enviably glamorous popular people, but friendly nebbishes imitating the social elite with slapdash satirical broad strokes.

The rhymes in Mr. Iconis’s lyrics feel like they might have been improvised on the spot by class-cutting stoners behind the gym. (An example from the showstopping “Michael in the Bathroom”: “I’d rather fake pee/Than stand awkwardly.”)

Doubtless much care and calculation has gone into remounting “Be More Chill.” But it still has the goofy karaoke quality of kids performing boisterously for other kids. It doesn’t try to dazzle its audience with glossy professionalism. For better or worse, this may be the only show on Broadway that a tween could see and think happily, “Hey, I could do that at home.”



Sahred From Source link Arts

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