Be More Chill

Original Cast, Two River Theater, 2015 (Ghostlight) 4 Stars (4 / 5) The story behind this recording and what it led to is as interesting as the plot of Be More Chill itself. Based on a novel by Ned Vizzini, the musical is an up-to-the minute cautionary tale about a loner teenager named Jeremy Heere who attempts to become “chill” by ingesting something called a “squip” (super quantum unit Intel processor), which winds up controlling his thoughts and actions. The show premiered at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey for a one-month limited run in 2015.  That production received mixed reviews, but this cast recording gained great popularity via the internet through streaming and downloads — so much so that the album entered Billboard Cast Album chart’s Top 10 in July 2017, sparking the Off-Broadway production of 2018 and the subsequent Broadway transfer (see below). Even if it’s hard to explain exactly how the score “went viral,” it’s easy to understand why it did; Iconis has a firm grounding in the classic musical theater canon, and a great talent for being able to wed traditional structures and other methods of craft with a truly up-to the minute sound and sensibility. Listen to the opener, “More Than Survive,” a spot-on, character-establishing, “I want” song for Jeremy that begins as follows: “C-c-c-come on, c-c-c- come on! Go, go! I’m waiting for my porn to download.” (The album has an “explicit lyrics” label.) Or sample “The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire),” a super-clever takeoff on “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie. Also quite amusing is Iconis’s depiction of the present-day high school theater subculture, as in “I Love Play Rehearsal” and other songs. The pretty much ideal cast heard here is headed by Will Connolly as a charmingly nerdy Jeremy, with Eric William Morris as The Squip; George Salazar as Jeremy’s staunch friend, Michael; Stephanie Hsu as Christine, the girl Jeremy’s obsessed with; and Gerard Canonico in a ball-of-fire performance as Rich, the ill-fated guy who turns Jeremy on to The Squip. Salazar does a tour-de-force job with arguably the best song in the score, the one that became the biggest viral phenomenon of all: “Michael in the Bathroom,” as affecting an anthem of teen angst as has ever been written by anyone. — Michael Portantiere

Original Broadway Cast, 2019 (Ghostlight, 2CDs) 4 Stars (4 / 5) Buoyed by the extraordinary online popularity of its score, as described above, Be More Chill was produced Off-Broadway at the Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center in the summer of 2018, with plans for a move to Broadway already largely in place at that time. This production featured several cast members from the Two River production, including Hsu, Salazar, and Canonico reprising the roles they originated. New cast members included Will Roland as Jeremy, Jason Tam as the Squip, Britton Smith as Jake, Tiffany Mann as Jenna, and Jason “Sweettooth” Williams as Mr. Heere, but not all of these changes are improvements; in particular, Roland’s performance doesn’t have quite the likeability of Connolly’s, and Smith is vocally miscast in the role of the privileged, entitled Jake, as compared to the perfectly cast Jake Boyd on the Two River recording. On the plus side, Tam makes the role of The Squip very much his own through his strong, distinctive voice and his fun Keanu Reeves imitation. As heard here, the score is well performed overall, with some relatively minor changes and additions in material. (This album is longer, 24 tracks as compared to 21 on the original.) Both the off-Broadway and Broadway engagements of Be More Chill were marred by painfully loud sound amplification, which may have been partly responsible for the brevity of the 2019 Broadway run (only 177 performances) of a show that many had expected to be a big hit, so the fact that listeners to the cast album are in full control of the volume is a huge plus for the experience. Music and lyrics this good certainly don’t need to be blasted at an audience, and suffer greatly rather than benefit from such treatment, a lesson that Iconis and his colleagues will hopefully learn for future productions of his shows. — M.P.