‘Be More Chill’ review
Time Out says
This very silly high school musical is one for the John Hughes obsessives
This Broadway import is a bit of a puzzler. Apparently, it’s a new musical-theatre phenomenon that’s been winning the hearts of digital native Gen Zers. But its retro story, aesthetic, sounds and social politics are all stuck somewhere between the invention of Pac-Man and the release of Green Day’s ‘Dookie’.
In the tradition of any number of John Hughes flicks, ‘Be More Chill’ centres on Jeremy (Scott Folan), a sweaty, gawky teen who wants to shed his nerdiness and virginity like they’re old Twinkie wrappers. First, he lines up to audition for drama club, in pursuit of acting-obsessed fellow teenager Christine, played by the wonderfully named Miracle Chance, who outquirks Amelie with lamb-like twitches of her limbs and uncalled-for witch impressions. Then he takes a magic pill called a Squip, which comes from Japan: cue a rock number titled ‘It’s from Japan’, because that’s how this show deploys its many retro-tinged songs, obviously and relentlessly.
The Squip is a pretty seductive concept for nerdy teens; it gives you a kind of personalised chill advisor that only you can see, who tells you how to dress, how to act, and all about the deepest insecurities of the popular kids who seem so normal. Pretty much as soon as it rolls on to the scene (disguised in a glowing shoebox) it’s also clear that it’s deeply evil: a stand-in for Adderall, weed, or social media addiction.
There’s something a bit ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ about the way that Jeremy ends up sacrificing his integrity for power and a pretty girl – except ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ has a deeply weird, mythical quality that makes it a critique of capitalism and the bloodthirsty cruelty that comes with ambition. ‘Be More Chill’ pulls its punches: Jeremy’s worst sin is being a ‘bad friend’ to his put-upon bestie Michael (Blake Patrick Anderson) – a peripheral figure-turned-day-saving-hero who weirdly gets the show’s standout song, ‘Michael in the Bathroom’.
I'm not 100 percent sure who the target audience is for ‘Be More Chill’. Young people will surely want something more in touch with twenty-first-century teendom, while some of the humour will alienate musical theatre’s core fanbase. There’s a depressing number of ‘no homo’ jokes about musical theatre being gay, and when someone comes out as bi it’s played entirely for laughs. And several of the female characters are horribly underwritten: vapid, preening and endlessly bending down in short skirts.
‘Dear Evan Hansen’ and ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ are proof that you can make musicals about teenage boys that are smart and subtle; ‘Be More Chill’ is not an innovative addition to the crowded canon of male coming-of-age stories. But its saving grace is its willingness to have fun. It feels a bit like a high school play, in a good way: in-jokes, visual gags, messy hormone-fuelled energy that sweeps you into its weirdly retro world.