Be More Chill’s so exciting I’m already thinking about the possibility of a sequel. Call it Most Chill. Or, Be More Chill With a Vengeance. Whatever it’s called, It should be self-referential, telling its own true story about a relentlessly upbeat wannabe Broadway musical that debuts in Jersey to no big whoop, then closes (also to no big whoop), but records a cast album anyway and that blows up huge on the internet, winning the hearts and minds of 15-year-olds from coast to coast.
Be More Chill’s immense online popularity practically insured a sellout when the show was resurrected off Broadway. Flash forward less than a year, Be More Chill is commencing previews for a proper Broadway run, there’s a movie version in the works, and best of all for Memphis theater fans, thanks to a quirk of BMC’s unusual path to glory, a locally-produced take on the zeitgeist-y show is also currently available in the 901, courtesy of a forward-thinking University of Memphis theater department.
It’s hard not to love Be More Chill's clever lyrics or its bubblegum-crashed-into-a-video-game soundtrack. I’m not so sure about the complete package, though. It’s relentless adorability can't be underestimated, but what sounded so fresh as a disembodied cast recording comes off a touch too derivative in three dimensions. Think: Little Shop of Cyrano Meets Every Teen Makeover Movie Ever + TRON — The Musical! Or, something like that.
Be More Chill introduces us to protagonist Jeremy Heere. He's a loser-gamer-nerd-bro crushing hard on drama geek Christine and looking to level-up his real life social game with the aid of a black market pill filled with mind-altering, anthropomorphic nanotech. The writing teeters on the edge of camp but turns on absolute sincerity. It's most effective when tapping the endlessly convergent reserves of teen anticipation and awkwardness evident in numbers like "Two Player Game," "Rich Set a Fire (The Smartphone Hour)", and "Michael in the Bathroom at a Party."
Inside Be More Chill's fat package of infectious ear-memes, “Michael in the Bathroom” stands up and stands out. It's a great little pop song in its own right and the scene it spans is the one unforced part of a show that wants to be loved just a little too hard. But when Jeremey's best friend, Michael, finds himself flying solo, hearing all the action he's hiding from and reflecting on his pitiful predicament, the show gets the breathing room it needs. All conflicting sensibilities fall away and for a minute or six everything is perfect. So much sound-sugar stirred into one cup can feel contrived but "Michael in the Bathroom" is rich, fragile, forever young, and completely alive.
I’m not yet so old and creaky that I don’t enjoy Be More Chill's super-now, digitally-enhanced vernacular. I do worry, though (LOL), that the book's particular language (smiley face, poopy face, kitty paw) may usher this musical into premature period-piece status. But, the U of M’s loving, lighting-forward production has the air and energy of a cultural moment similar to the school’s storied early run of Hair. Only with adderall, smart-tech, and social media standing in for Vietnam, LSD, and sunshine.
But who can complain about a show with such an exuberant ensemble that's clearly having that much infectious fun? And when’s the last time I’ve been in the middle of an audience that showed up knowing all the lyrics and nobody was dressed up like Tim Curry? I've got to admit, it's kind of nice when that happens. Once you endure its charm flood and Be More Chill's hoary themes of self- acceptance, there may not be much there. But, as is the case with many great pop songs that have taken our pulse, burned down the charts, then vanished into deep nothingness, sometimes all you need is a good hook.
I don’t review as many college shows as I used to once upon a time. It's hard for an outside observer to know enough about student needs to comment too specifically without running the risk of affirming a bad habit or accidentally trampling over personal growth. But a lot of good, progressive-minded work happens on campus and, because of its weird history and potentially bright future, I wanted to write more than I normally might about this one. If nothing else, watching Be More Chill reminded me that student actors rarely get to play characters roughly their own age, living right now, with such familiar and (sigh, yes) relatable problems. Even if the show is something less than the sum of its songs, it’s a great fit for the school and for the moment, and a tremendous opportunity to see a lot of young talent swinging for the fences.