Jeremy is your typical New Jersey high school kid. His parents are divorced, he spends hours playing video games and he's a nobody at school. Of course his dad is a clinically depressed and pants-less wreck who haunts the house all day, and Jeremy has his own personal bully, but the worst thing about his life is that his crush — the beautiful and talented Christine — doesn't see him as anything other than a casual acquaintance. Youth isn't wasted on the young; it's a nightmare realm of pain and embarrassment they'll be lucky to laugh about some day, if they live long enough.
Be More Chill, which got its St. Louis premiere last weekend courtesy of New Line Theatre (and is still playing Broadway), is a deep dive into the claustrophobic caste system of the American high school. If you're not cool or an academic star, you're a nobody. And nobodies never catch a break, never win and never get a girl, let alone "the" girl. Under Mike Dowdy-Windsor and Scott Miller's bright direction, New Line's Be More Chill is a startlingly fresh musical that avoids cliche to tell an exciting and at times very funny story about modern teenagers with a sci-fi twist.
The play is aided enormously by its fresh-faced cast and the sci-fi conceit. Jeremy (Jayde Mitchell) is hiding in the bathroom when his tormentor, Rich (a very physical Evan Fornachon), enters and out of the blue confesses that he abuses Jeremy because "the Squip" tell him to. As Rich explains through some ritualized movements in "The Squip Song," the Squip is a gray, oblong pill from Japan with nanotechnology inside that you swallow with Mountain Dew to activate. Once internalized, the Squip takes control of your social interactions, making you more chill. The fact that Rich howls "it's from Japan" like he's fronting Def Leppard and seems to have suddenly developed a stutter seems ominous. But in short order Jeremy too has a Squip, despite the disapproval of his best friend Micheal (Kevin Corpuz).
When the Squip (Dominic Dowdy-Windsor) takes charges of Jeremy's wardrobe, hygiene and personal life, he takes human form as Laurence Fishburne's "Morpheus" character in The Matrix. Dowdy-Windsor plays the Squip with a condescending air, and rightfully so. Jeremy is a mess. As the Squip edits Jeremy's deplorable life, he ruthlessly excises anyone who he perceives as a dead end, mostly against Jeremy's will. Not always, though. Jeremy's Cheshire Cat grin as he's sandwiched between popular girls Brooke and Chloe (Melissa Felps and Laura Renfro, both with excellent voices) in "Do You Wanna Ride?" demonstrates the benefits — and the allure — of the Squip's program.
Rob Lippert's scenic design features large, rectangular boxes covered with stylized microcircuitry that spin to reveal bedrooms, rehearsal rooms and bathrooms. These last two inspire a pair of the show's best songs. Christine (Grace Langford) extols her great devotion to the rehearsal process in "I Love Play Rehearsal," because the script tells her how to behave and what to say, unlike real life. Michael's heartbreaking "Michael in the Bathroom" sees Jeremy's best friend in a blue gorilla costume, mournfully trying to summon the courage to leave the safety of this private space after Jeremy cuts him loose. Kevin Corpuz's performance here is matched only by his pep-talk duet ("The Pants Song") with Jeremy's dad (Zachary Allen Farmer, doing yeoman's work in all the adult roles), who's at sea following the loss of his wife and son.
As good as Joe Iconis' songs are (and the New Line band, led by Marc Vincent, plays them very well indeed), Joe Tracz' book is equally compelling. An off-hand factoid about stagnating human evolution dovetails quite tidily with the Squip's motivations for disseminating more of itself through the school. This is the real menace of life lived by remote control, and everything in Be More Chill hinges on someone "just saying no" to technology-laced drugs. For all its charms and honesty about the bad decision-making of high schoolers, Be More Chill's gripping conclusion proves that not everyone takes the easy way out. It takes only one brave teen armed with a fondness for retro '90s culture to stop the madness. Uncoolness never looked so good.