BWW Review: Joe Iconis and Joe Tracz's Hard-Rocking, Super-Charged and Very Well Written BE MORE CHILL
It may not have the romantic sweep of "Some Enchanted Evening" or the driving intensity of "Don't Rain On My Parade," but so far, the best new theatre song of this young season is a finely-crafted emotional shut-down carrying the unlikely title "Michael In The Bathroom."
One of the more introspective moments of composer/lyricist Joe Iconis and bookwriter Joe Tracz's hard-rocking, super-charged and very well written science fiction musical comedy Be More Chill (based on Ned Vizzini's 2004 novel), the song deals with a moment where, while attending a Halloween party, a character receives rejection from his closest friend and reacts with a sudden need to just be alone, so he locks himself in the bathroom.
Sitting on the edge of the tub, dreading the thought of having to nonchalantly hang out among the crowd and pretend nothing is wrong, Michael's growing anxiety is matched by that of the frustrated guests lined up on the other side of the door, desperate to use the facility.
Actually, to call this a new song, or to call nearly anything about this extremely enjoyable musical new, is a relative term. Although director Stephen Brackett's kinetically non-stop Off-Broadway mounting is only the second time Be More Chill has been produced, the combination of an original cast album from its 2015 month-long staging at Two River Theater, numerous cabaret and concert appearances from cast members singing from the score, and the extraordinary power of social media and other Internet platforms to expose recordings and videos to a worldwide audience, has built the show a tremendous fan base that has streamed the cast album over 100 million times and sold out it's current limited run before opening night. (An extra week has been added.)
Search "Michael In The Bathroom" on the Internet and you'll not only find the terrifically empathetic performance by George Salazar, who originated the role at Two River and does a bang-up job at the Signature Center, but pages and pages of homemade videos by fans singing the number, animating it or, in one case, translating it into ASL. The evening this critic attended, over a hundred theatregoers waited in the lobby for cast members to come out after the show, screaming their approval as if they were John, Paul, George, Ringo and Elvis.
And the best part is that all of this obsessive fandom is being directed at a musical comedy with realistic, relatable characters singing well-placed songs that are specific to their emotions and the situations they're in. Be More Chill is good musical theatre disguised as a pop phenomenon.
The plot is a contemporary variation of a familiar coming-of-age situation. Perpetually nervous and nerdy high school sophomore Jeremy (Will Roland, who manages to be dynamic in his performance while playing a timid and awkward fellow) has a crush on drama club enthusiast Christine (bright, bubbly and funny Stephanie Hsu), but just as he's getting up the nerve to talk with her, slick and confident Jake (Britton Smith) grabs her attention.
Punk-bully Rich (Gerard Canonico) confides to Jeremy that he was once an unnoticed nerd, too, until he took an illegal pill that implanted a Squip (Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor) into his mind, which uses computerized technology to instantly size up every situation and tells him exactly what to say and do to achieve his programmed goals.
When Jeremy acquires his own Squip, it's visible to him (and only him) as a Keanu Reeves-like icon played with cool, intelligent sex appeal by Jason Tam. But when becoming popular enough to get Christine to like him will mean breaking off his friendship with the loyal Michael, Jeremy has to consider the wounds he leaves behind on his quest for happiness.
Tracz's book solidly moves the story along, with Brackett's staging nailing comic moments without sacrificing sincerity. Chase Brock's fun choreography appropriately works within the capabilities of typical suburban high school sophomores.
But it's Iconis' score that really lights up the evening; mature in craft while conveying the musical and verbal vernacular of the show's young characters. Christine's "I Love Play Rehearsal" is a lovely expression of the security felt when you can, at least temporarily, be someone else living a scripted life. "Loser Geek Whatever" is an astoundingly effective and unexpected moment, somewhat resembling GYPSY's "Rose's Turn," where Jeremy, alone on stage, defiantly declares that he will do whatever it takes to rid himself of the depressing life he's lived up until now. One of the wonderful things about Roland's performance is that, even in this commanding, dramatic moment, he uses a pubescent-like voice that sounds like it could crack any time. (It doesn't)
Smokey-voiced Jason SweetTooth Williams, a beloved regular of Joe Iconis projects, plays all the adult characters, including the slightly creepy drama teacher who revises A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM as a zombie thriller and a sleazy Squip dealer. But he brings a great deal of heart to the show as Jeremy's dad, a widower who, thanks to a stay at home job, has become a recluse who spends the day in his bathrobe. The realization that his son is going through an emotional crisis snaps him back into being a strong, caring father because, as he sings, "When you love somebody you put your big boy pants right on."
BE MORE CHILL may be about kids, but it wears serious big boy pants.