Two teenage girls seated near me for a recent matinee at the Pershing Square Signature Center agreed that they were so over “Hamilton.” Ditto “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Spring Awakening.” They had loved each of these youth-oriented musicals in turn, but now they had discovered the real thing.
The object of their passion is “Be More Chill,” the high-energy, high-anxiety musical that officially opened on Thursday night but is already all but sold out for its limited run (through Sept. 23). Few of the audience members, I might add, heed the injunction of the title.
On the contrary, the decibel level of their responsive shrieks matches, and sometimes overwhelms, that of the heavily amplified music. Eat your hearts out, Harry Styles and Katy Perry and all you other kiddie pop idols. This is the stuff of teen dreams with a vengeance.
Unfortunately, anyone for whom adolescence is a distant and unpleasant memory is unlikely to feel like screaming, not in ecstasy, anyway. Unlike the more nuanced “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Spring Awakening” — never mind “Hamilton” — “Be More Chill” seems like a members-only club for those caught in the hellish here-and-now of the middle teens.
Written by Joe Iconis (songs) and Joe Tracz (book), with direction by Stephen Brackett, this production not only addresses but also embodies the exhaustingly excitable metabolism of its target audience. As a consequence, what’s happening onstage feels like a closed-circuit communion between young adults and performers portraying young adults. It’s a show that might have been assembled in the bedroom of one of its unhappy characters and then streamed to the world via YouTube.
Which, by the way, is one of the principal media that turned “Be More Chill” into the sui generis sensation it already is. First staged to lackluster critical response at New Jersey’s Two River Theater three years ago, “Be More Chill” went on to become a disembodied hit with an audience that discovered the show online (via videos and a cast recording that has been streamed more 150 million times worldwide) with little or no prompting from its creators.
This is a grass-roots success story that could have happened only in the age of social media. And audiences for this show’s current New York incarnation, which is only its second professional production, arrive with a fierce sense of proprietary pride. “Be More Chill” really is all about them.
Its plot and tone exist between the brooding “Dear Evan Hansen” and another, perkier Broadway hit, “Mean Girls.” Like both those shows, “Be More Chill” — which is adapted from Ned Vizzini’s droll and eminently readable 2004 novel — deals with the anguish of feeling like an outsider in that treacherously stratified purgatory called high school.
The schlubby hero, in this instance, is Jeremy Heere (Will Roland, the nerdy Jared in the original cast of “Dear Evan Hansen”). Living in a rudderless household since his mom walked out (his dad, played by Jason SweetTooth Williams, can’t even be bothered to put on pants), Jeremy is equally low on confidence and friends.
As for school, he just wants to get through each day there unnoticed (which means not pranked, hit or generally bullied). The high points of his life are masturbating to computer porn and playing video games with his only pal, Michael Mell (the crowd favorite George Salazar). Jeremy does have a crush on the lovely Christine Canigula (Stephanie Hsu), the star of the drama program, but is more or less resigned to hopelessness.
As in “Mean Girls,” our leading nerd is given the chance to become Cool, an opportunity he will accept and live to regret. The key novelty here is that he is made over into popularity not by groovy mentors and stylists but a tiny, pill-sized computer that, once swallowed, teaches him all the right moves. The soulless soul of this machine, known as a Squip, is embodied by a dark angel who resembles Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix,” and is played with welcome wit by Jason Tam.
Beowulf Boritt’s set, accented by fluorescent frames, ingeniously suggests lives held in thrall by technology. But even once the Squip takes effect on Jeremy and (spoiler) others, the activity onstage is frantically human. From beginning to end, the score has an “OMG” urgency that never lets up, whether what’s being sung about is hooking up with a hottie (full of lyrics groaning with double entendres) or betraying your best friend.
Such breathlessness is most enjoyably deployed in a gossip-girls number inspired by “The Telephone Hour” from “Bye Bye Birdie.” This one is called “The Smart Phone Hour (Rich Set a Fire),” and it is led with vigor by Tiffany Mann as the chatty Jenna Rolan. A similar frenzy pulses through the breakout agony anthem “Michael in the Bathroom,” in which Mr. Salazar’s character barricades himself into teary solitude at a party.
The musical sequences, featuring slapdash choreography by Chase Brock, tend to blend into one another. And at times, I had the feeling that many of the uniformly intense cast members could change parts (and Bobby Frederick Tilley II’s costumes), and no one would notice.
The amplification level means that many of the lyrics are undecipherable to the previously uninitiated. Admittedly, this is sometimes a blessing (“Add some swagger to your gait or/You’ll look like a masturbator.”)
Personally, I was happiest when the plot careened off the rails into sci-fi apocalypse territory, which happens during the school’s politically corrected version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” That was a hoot.
The rest of the show is more of a sustained holler, and being receptive to its charms surely requires a much younger set of ears than mine. It may be helpful to think of this bounding, exhaustingly enthusiastic puppy of a show as the theatrical equivalent of one of those high-pitched dog whistles that only those under 25 can hear.