Be More Chill

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Be More Chill

Irene Diamond Stage, NYC, August 26, 2018

Reviewed by Chip Deffaa for Cabaret Scenes

Will Roland (L) & George Salazar
Photo: Maria Baranova

If I were an investor, I’d put money into the Off-Broadway musical Be More Chill. I haven’t felt that way since Avenue Q was in development, some 15 years ago. I’m not saying it’s a perfect show, but it’s an absolutely perfect show for its intended audience—young people of today. And the theater was packed with the youngest, most enthusiastic audience I’ve seen anywhere since the early days of Rent. The creators of this show have got something. It’s one show I would have loved to have worked on myself. (Not that they need any outside help.) I had a great time and I want to see it again.

Kudos to all involved, from songwriter Joe Iconis to librettist Joe Tracz, to choreographer Chase Brock to star Will Roland and company. There is so much to like here.  It’s an unassuming but curiously  important show. 

From that stage, youth is speaking to youth in its own voice. The young characters in this show have a ring of truth to them. (The  gawky lead, making it clear early on that he likes to masturbate, feels more real—and of the current moment—than any youth we might find in, say Disney’s High School Musical.)  

And the teens packing the house at the matinee I attended responded with complete recognition: a real bonding of audience and material was taking place, in a way that is both rare and wonderful. The current Off-Broadway engagement at  the Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City (through September 30) is a limited run. But mark my words—this show will have a life—and, if the producers act wisely, a very good one. (As this is posted, it was announced the show would be moving to the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway in February 2019)

The show was first performed at a little theater in Red Bank, NJ (the Two River Theater, which commissioned it), where it got mixed reviews, but proved a solid hit with audiences. The producers subsequently released a cast album. There was no money to promote or advertise the album, but it and the show began developing a fiercely loyal fan base, just by word-of-mouth and the power of its Internet presence. 

The current production has a wonderful animal vitality and honesty. The same qualities that make it perfect for teens will push away some older traditional theater-goers. But, it’s got something. I felt that way about Hedwig, too, the first time I saw it, and heard the first rough, raw “live” demos. Here was something real and fresh and vital and true, something organic. And it says a lot that the current limited engagement—with no ad campaign to support it—quickly sold out.

The show itself is an unusual mix of new and old. It feels and looks “of the moment.” Tracz and Iconis have captured well the sound of the way teens speak today. Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design has an utterly contemporary computer-era feel. Charlie Rosen’s wonderfully eclectic, oddly retro musical arrangements—complete with eerie sounds of a Theremin (plus trumpet, sax, guitar, keyboards, flugabone, vocoder, recorder, and electronics)—make me think of a 1950s science-fiction movie trying to sound futuristic. And it works!  

The storyline is contemporary, based on the novel of the same name by Ned Vizzini. The hero of our tale (superbly played by Will Roland) feels he’s an outcast, a loser in high school. He opts to take a pill that he’s told will make him popular. He’ll be surrendering self-control to the control of a computer program. But he’ll have all of the answers. And, he’s told, he’ll be happy.

So the story is fresh and new, but it is also timeless. In every age, there have been young people who’ve felt lost, who’ve wondered what price might be worth paying for the sake of popularity, what sacrifices are worth making for the sake of feeling you have all the answers. And the choices our hero must make (should he abandon his best friend, if that will help him gain admittance to the popular clique?) are choices kids are making every day. The creative team has told the story well. Yes, I think a bit of judicious pruning could make the show even stronger. There were moments when my interest sagged a bit because a song seemed repetitive and was going on too long. I wanted the story to keep moving forward. But, such flaws are minor. And the show, as a whole works—and works brilliantly—right now.  

It is impeccably cast. Will Roland, Gerard Canonico, George Salazar, Stephanie Hsu, Jason Tam, Lauren Marcus, and Jason Sweettooth Williams are complete and utter delights. Director Stephen Brackett has just the right light touch. The tone is right. And, did I mention the choreography of Chase Brock, who seems born to do this show? It fits the subject matter masterfully. Small, well-crafted details—the way Brock, for example,  has two of the leads moving in synch on “Two-Player Game”  to show their bond—are positioned and executed perfectly. And bigger movements—like the joyous dancing at a party (which goes bad, as parties almost always do in teen dramas)—help take the show to great heights when needed. There is much to enjoy here, and I can’t wait to see it again! 

Chip Deffaa

Chip Deffaa is the author of 16 published plays and eight published books, and the producer of 24 albums. For 18 years he covered entertainment, including music and theater, for The New York Post. In his youth, he studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He is a graduate of Princeton University and a trustee of the Princeton "Tiger" magazine. He wrote and directed such Off-Broadway successes as "George M. Cohan Tonight!" and "One Night with Fanny Brice." His shows have been performed everywhere from London to Edinburgh to Seoul. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild, the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society, NARAS, and ASCAP. He’s won the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award, the IRNE Award, and a New Jersey Press Association Award. Please visit:

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