Entertainment & Arts

Review: In ‘Be More Chill,’ the adolescent angst of ‘Evan Hansen’ gets a wacky (and loud) A.I. twist

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Stephanie Hsu and Will Roland in the musical “Be More Chill” at the Lyceum Theatre.
(Maria Baranova )
Theater Critic

It wasn’t that long ago that a topic of concern was the graying of theater audiences. Today, we must address the high school takeover of Broadway stages.

The success of “Dear Evan Hansen” has apparently opened the pubescent floodgates. “Mean Girls” has unleashed its vicious cafeteria rivalries in song and dance. “The Prom,” while humorously focused on a troupe of middle-age actors looking to revive their careers by becoming social justice heroes at an intolerant high school in Indiana, carves out emotional space for the adolescent victims of bulldozing adults.

And now, “Be More Chill,” which had its official opening at the Lyceum Theatre on Sunday, joins this posse with a musical tale about an alienated geek desperate to, if not fit in with the popular kids, at least stop humiliating himself in their company. The musical, written by Joe Iconis (music and lyrics) and Joe Tracz (book), is like a cross between “Dear Evan Hansen” and a wacky sci-fi thriller

Directed by Stephen Brackett, the production differentiates itself from the Broadway pack by being even more riotous and extreme. The imagination is gaudy, the volume deafening and the plot kinetically convoluted. Exhaustingly exaggerated, the show should consider an advisory that some material might not be suitable for adults.

Based on a novel by Ned Vizzini, “Be More Chill,” which had an off-Broadway run last year, follows the trials and tribulation of Jeremy Heere (Will Roland), a high-school junior in suburban New Jersey who’s incapacitated by social awkwardness. Spurned and bullied at school and frustrated at home by his depressed father, who hasn’t put on pants since Jeremy’s mother left him, he becomes ludicrously tongue-tied in the presence of Christine (Stephanie Hsu), whose squealing zeal for theater entices him to sign up for the new school play, “A Midsummer Nightmare About Zombies.”

That title — the brainchild of the fidgety drama teacher, Mr. Reyes (Jason SweetTooth Williams, who also plays Jeremy’s dad) — hints at the strange turn the story will take after Jeremy learns about a new drug from Japan. This pill-size supercomputer, available on the black market at the Menlo Park Mall, can apparently take over the failing operating system of a dweeb and transform him into a self-confident charmer.

For a guy who can’t stop bemoaning his outcast status in song (“I don’t want to be special, no no/I just wanna survive”), Jeremy doesn’t need much persuading to tap into his bar mitzvah money to score a dose. The drug, once ingested, introduces Jeremy to the Squip (Jason Tam), a computer avatar whose persona can be selected by the user.

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Jason Tam is the Squip in the Broadway musical "Be More Chill" at the Lyceum Theatre.
(Maria Baranova)

For Jeremy, the artificial intelligence hijacking his brain looks and acts like Keanu Reeves. Determined to reprogram Jeremy in his own image, this Squip has his work cut out for him. But taking control of Jeremy is just one step in a more menacing AI campaign.

“Dear Evan Hansen” incorporated the social media swirl of high school into the staging. Here, the production design lends the impression that we’re viewing the action on an app. Once a sanctuary from mindless technological hubbub, the theater now seems compelled to compete with the flash and frenzy of our screen lives.

“Be more chill”: Jeremy isn’t the only one having trouble taking the Squip’s advice. The creative team also can’t seem to calm down. The comedy, amped up to cartoonish proportions, has some zingy moments. A drunken Halloween party might be overkill, but the way the school “Zombies” play turns into a case of life imitating art is inspired.

At times, it seems as if the show wishes it could convert itself to animation. The heightened intensity is part of the originality. But the relentlessness is wearying and the hyperbolic style is at odds with the protagonist’s predictable emotional arc.

Iconis, who wrote songs for the TV show “Smash” and whose garage band musical “The Black Suits” had its undercooked premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2013, writes in an indie-rock style that succeeds chiefly in conveying the inner turmoil shaking the characters. The clobbering effect is potent yet monotonous.

Ground down by the blare, I found it impossible to feel much of anything when Michael (George Salazar), the best friend Jeremy neglects after getting his artificial cool on, has his cri de cœur number, “Michael in the Bathroom.” Nor was I moved when Jeremy’s dad finally realizes it’s time to put on some clothes and rescue his son in “The Pants Song.”

As for Jeremy and Christine’s relationship — well, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Jeremy caring about the outcome. Hsu’s shrieking lampoon — performed as written — makes it difficult to credit the few human touches eventually added to her character.

The spotlight is on Roland’s Jeremy, much in the way it was trained on Ben Platt in “Dear Evan Hansen.” The problem is that Jeremy doesn’t provide Roland with the same lyrical depth. Jeremy’s grand finale, “Voices in My Head,” came as a relief not because of any psychological epiphany or resolution but because of the promise that the cacophony would soon be over.

Who is the audience for “Be More Chill”? Fifteen-year-olds who can afford Broadway tickets? God bless. But why subject them — or anyone — to such an overextended throwback structure? The nightmare of adolescence is part of the fun. I get it. (I lived it.) But with a 2½-hour rackety running time, the musical’s dimensions are out of whack.

One energizing quality of the production is the diversity of the young cast. For “Be More Chill” to survive at the Lyceum, it will have to become a cult phenomenon. It’s hard to imagine a stampede of repeat customers for this latest Broadway dive into adolescent angst. But one thing is certain: New faces onstage will bring new faces to the theater.