Theater is a collaborative art. It takes a lot of people to make it happen. And for all the right reasons, composer Joe Iconis has created a pretty tight-knit group of disciples. They are loyal collaborators, some of them having worked together for years, many of them on Be More Chill, his Broadway debut. In this day and age of self-promotion, self-absorption and just plain selfishness, this level of group spirit is refreshing. It would even be inspiring if the result of their efforts wasn't such a mess. The problem here isn't commitment, but rather a woefully apparent lack of objectivity. The whole thing feels like one big in-joke that only a certain clique understands.
What the show really needs is an objective editor.
Still, all is not lost. There are some grown ups in the room. Beowulf Boritt (set design) and Tyler Micoleau (lighting design) have created a really cool environment and the lighting effects are indeed truly impressive. Combined with Alex Basco Koch's inventive projections, the physical production really feels like you are inside a computer.
Gerard Canonico and Britton Smith make the most of small but pivotal roles, even as they suffer the most unlikely of plot twists that try too hard to be "current." "The Smartphone Hour" is one of four really good songs in the show, and it gives the supporting ladies in the cast - Tiffany Mann, Katlyn Carlson and Lauren Marcus - some terrific material to work with. And they rise to the occasion. (I'd love to see them rumble with The Plastics or The Heathers.) In a myriad of roles, one has to wonder if Jason SweetTooth Williams really has a multiple personality disorder. He sure is sweet as a troubled, pants-challenged parent.
The four central characters had the most emotional effect on both Mike and me. Mike found much to love in the song that bears his name, "Michael in the Bathroom." And I could totally relate to "I Love Play Practice." Seems we both had our high school anxieties and insecurities, and these numbers were painfully on the nose. And seeing them performed with such endearing intensity by George Salazar and Stephanie Hsu, respectively...let's just say, tears were shed. Both are as guilty as the rest of overacting, but somehow, both make it work. Perhaps it's because they offer a nice counterpoint to Will Roland's (relatively) more grounded central portrayal. Roland is leagues better here than in last year's teen "it" show, Dear Evan Hansen. He brings a humanity to the well-worn geek trope, and he sings the hell out of the act one closer, "Loser Geek Whatever." (And he looks great in his Halloween costume...)
But...what is that saying about believing your own press?
Will this last? The middle school/early high school audience that this is aimed at is a fickle one. The next "big thing" is just around the corner and the shelf-life clock is ticking. How long will it take before these kids realize the BMC isn't much more than Mountain Dew injected Disney Channel movie with swearing. (For people who are older, read: After School Special on Jolt Cola with cuss words.) Funny that a simple, judicious editing pencil and a sincere attempt at going a little deeper would definitely add to its shelf life, and might even make the parents who will have to tag along feel better about the hundreds they have to shell out for this experience. One last thought: how long will it be before the fans realize they have been pandered to in the worst way? Excess has the staying power of a sugar rush.
Be More Chill would have been so much better if it were a lot more...chill.
(Photos by J. Kyler, M. Baranova)