BE MORE CHILL: Even More Than Meets the Eye and Ear

Last week, when reviewing the wan musical GETTIN’ THE BAND BACK TOGETHER, I noted that the show set in Sayreville, NJ made quite a few Jersey Jokes.

I added that BE MORE CHILL, the musical I’d see this week, was set in “Suburban New Jersey.” Would this mean that there’d be more Jersey Jokes at the expense of Garden Staters?

In fact, the show just has one.

The off-Broadway musical by songwriter Joe Iconis and bookwriter Joe Tracz has much more on its mind than GETTIN’, which isn’t gettin’ much business at the Belasco. BE MORE CHILL doesn’t see the need to endlessly mock Jersey when there are so many issues about high school life to examine.

Teen outcast Jeremy Heere has his eye (and wants to have much more) on Christine Canigula. She’s part of the drama club, so, like so many boys before him, Jeremy decides to join the club simply to be nearer to her.

The play is NOT the thing.

Jeremy does have a good friend in Michael, who also isn’t winning any popularity contests. No wonder that they spend so much time in Jeremy’s bedroom playing video games. There’s a smart metaphor when the boys are involved in a, as the song goes, “Two-Player Game.” A pair of participants is needed to play such a contest, so it cements their friendship.

Iconis makes the metaphor even more rewarding by having Michael worry that Jeremy will soon be “too good for video games.” What he really means, of course, is that Jeremy may soon feel he’s too good for Michael. That brings in another metaphor when the song concludes and one of Alex Basco Koch’s projections says “Game over.”

It just might be. Michael’s worried because Jeremy learns of a pill he can take to make him popular. Not a pill, actually; this is the 21st century, so a super-tiny computer in pill form would nestle in Jeremy’s brain and tell him how to succeed in high school without really trying.

Jeremy takes it instead of the advice that Michael dispenses. Too bad, for it’s a truism that never seems to come up in stories of high school life: Things’ll get better once you reach college. Michael’s lucky that older people have told him this and that he trusts them enough to believe it. Or, considering how bright Michael seems to be, he just might have reached this conclusion on his own.

Such a realization only goes so far. Michael still has high school parties to get through where no one wants to know him. His second act musical soliloquy on this issue is certainly a production highpoint thanks to Iconis’ extra-impressive rock aria. For just when you might think that he’s given Michael everything the lad could possibly say, he continues the song, sends it into another direction, and finds new and impressive thoughts for Michael.

After Jeremy takes “The Squip” (an acronym for Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor), he comes alive to play Mame to Jeremy’s Agnes Gooch. Soon a new-and- — well, only perhaps improved — Jeremy is rubbing elbows with high school hotties Chloe and Brooke with the potential to rub even more parts of them. Is this the end of Michael and Christine?

(Apparently, Eminem has reached his end, at least with this era’s teens. Much is made of the fact that he’s now about as popular as Elphaba is on her first day at Shiz.)

Does Jeremy’s new-found confidence in himself simply come from The Squip or is it a placebo that makes him assume the pill is working? As the late ‘60s boulevard comedy FORTY CARATS said, “People take their cue from you.”

That BE MORE CHILL includes all the teen angst that’s been detailed in hundreds of properties before it isn’t a liability; all the issues still ring of truth. Who hasn’t learned that if you and an acquaintance hate the same person, you might well become “friends” simply on the basis of that? Don’t we all know that a girl must reconsider dating a boy if her best girl friend doesn’t like him, too?

Perhaps “Just say no” is what’s really on BE MORE CHILL’S mind, for a computer-pill is still a drug. And yet, one of the final lines in the show seems to be an endorsement for Ecstasy. The show loses its way in the last 15 minutes, but Iconis and Tracz give us the confidence that they’re going to get it right as they continue to work on the show.

Iconis does fall prey to some false accents (Je-re-MEE, as opposed to JER-eh-mee) which do seem to accumulate as the show continues. Nevertheless, a lyricist who knows the value of a rhyming dictionary and uses it is not to be remotely dismissed but must be cherished.

Tracz has provided some laugh-out-loud lines. One of the school’s most dazzling beauties (and a VERY mean girl) shows up for auditions and wonders aloud “Has this theater always been here?” A jock congratulates Christine on her performance last year as Romeo’s Juliet and that he liked her “victory dance.” She informs him that “It’s called a bow.”

You’d think that an actor named like Jason Sweettooth Williams would be one of the teens. No, he’s the one adult on hand who plays the school’s pretentious drama teacher as well as a most bizarre shoe store employee and Jeremy’s father, which takes up most of his performance.

Williams is wonderful as Mr. Heere, partly because the writers haven’t stacked the deck by making him a damn fool.

What could be another well-worn plot device – a son embarrassed by his father – gets a refreshing new slant, too. Jeremy isn’t hypercritical of his dad in standard teen fashion (which certainly happens between mother and daughter in GETTIN’). Even Mr. Heere knows way down deep that his shortcomings are making life harder for Jeremy and works hard to change his own trajectory. Williams conveys this all extraordinarily well and also gets to deliver a great twist on the word “loser.”

Was able director Stephen Brackett responsible for the marvelous in-joke during the pretentious drama teacher’s production of A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT-MARE? Or was it actress Tiffany Mann. While she delivered Helena’s line “Never did mockers waste more idle breath,” she acknowledged the greatest sin actors can commit: indicating. When she got to the word “waste” she dramatically pointed to her waist.

Stephanie Hsu is a charming Christine, who partly loves doing theater because the script and stage directions provide the discipline on how she’s to behave. Jason Tam is an imperious and impenetrable Squip and George Salazar puts a hearty heart on his sleeve as Michael.

I’m in the miniscule minority in thinking that what Ben Platt showed in DEAR EVAN HANSEN was all surface. (Have I lost you all now and forever?) Will Roland, who had the smaller role of Jared in that musical, is Jeremy here and gives the real under-the-skin and into-the-brain performance that would make him an exceptional Evan.

If BE MORE CHILL doesn’t move to Broadway (and I hope it does), more I cannot wish Roland than to get his chance at the role. My, he’d be great. In the meantime, he’s giving the performance of the season.

Did the terrific lines or the FAST-TIMES-AT-RIDGEMONT-HIGH sensibility come from Tracz or Ned Vizzini’s novel? Only those who have read his book can say for sure.

Yes, you read that right: BE MORE CHILL is based on a novel. In an age where so many complain that the vast majority of new Broadway musicals are based on films (or, perhaps more accurately, movies), finding that there are young writers who still read is part (but only a part) of the satisfaction that BE MORE CHILL gives.