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‘Be More Chill’ review: Musical comedy has the makings of a modern classic

With pop-rock show tunes that raise the roof and high-powered acting performances, it’s no wonder this Off-Broadway show is sold out, even before opening.

"Be More Chill" already has a legion of fans -- the cast album has been streamed more than 100 million times. Photo Credit: Maria Baranova

‘Be More Chill’ runs through Sept. 23 at the Pershing Square Signature Center. 480 W. 42nd St., bemorechillmusical.com.

“Dear Evan Hansen” meets “Little Shop of Horrors” in “Be More Chill,” a smart and crowd-pleasing new musical comedy containing superb pop-rock show tunes by Joe Iconis and crafted with familiar elements of high school teen comedy, sci-fi movies, social media and tristate suburbia.

“Be More Chill” received its world premiere three years ago at Two River Theater in New Jersey. Although no other professional productions followed, the cast album (streamed more than 100 million times) became very popular among teenage theater geeks. Not surprisingly, this limited run production is already sold out.

Based on Ned Vizzini’s 2004 young adult novel, “Be More Chill” centers on Jeremy (Will Roland, “Dear Evan Hansen”), a hapless high school junior who laments his inability to talk to his secret crush Christine (Stephanie Hsu, “SpongeBob SquarePants”) and plays zombie attack video games with his cheery best friend Michael (George Salazar, “Godspell”).

One day, the bullying Rich (Gerard Canonico, “Spring Awakening”) suggests that Jeremy can move up the social ladder and gain confidence by swallowing an illegal, Japanese-made gray pill that will implant a Squip (Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor) inside his brain and tell him exactly what to do. It turns out that Rich was just like Jeremy before he got himself a Squip.

After purchasing a Squip from a shady stock boy at the back of a Payless at the Menlo Park Mall, a mysterious Keanu Reeves-style figure (Jason Tam, “A Chorus Line”) begins scripting Jeremy’s every move. As in “Little Shop,” this turns out to be a botched Faustian bargain. But unlike “Little Shop,” the creature’s plans for world conquest are eventually defeated and a happy ending follows.

Iconis (who has written a handful of Off-Broadway musicals but is probably best known for the anthem “Broadway, Here I Come!” from the TV series “Smash”) has written his finest score to date.

His catchy songs are neatly integrated into the plotting (including a contemporary, frenzied takeoff of “The Telephone Hour” of “Bye Bye Birdie” where teens cheerily text and tweet about an act of arson) and provide complete character portraits (including a second act showstopper where Michael mourns about having to lock himself in a bathroom at a house party). Iconis also uses eerie electronic sounds to heighten the mood.

The book (by Joe Tracz) is nowhere near as strong as the score, which creates a palpable disunity. The juvenile jokes in the dialogue do not land and the minor characters too often engage in random actions. If the production transfers to another venue (either Off-Broadway or even on Broadway) for an open-ended run, the book ought to undergo serious edits. Considering that the show currently runs two and a half hours, it could benefit from cutting at least 15 minutes of dialogue.

Notwithstanding, the production (directed by Stephen Brackett, “The Lightning Thief”) is a raucous good time, with a gleefully silly, hyperkinetic air that invades its every facet, including the set (by Beowulf Boritt, which resembles a computer interior) and costumes (by Bobby Frederick Tilley, including over-the-top Halloween attire).

The high-powered performances are universally excellent, including Roland’s desperate, big-voiced Jeremy, Hsu’s adorably geeky and enthusiastic Christine, Canonico’s brash Rich, Tam’s slick Squip and Salazar’s vulnerable Michael — not to mention Jason Sweettooth Williams as several adult characters (including Jeremy’s pants-lacking father) and Lauren Marcus as a popular girl (who awkwardly attempts a Britney Spears-style seduction).

At my performance, the audience seemed to be made up primarily of teens (some with their parents in tow) that already knew the show thanks to the cast album. They cheered it on as if they were at a rock concert or a “Rocky Horror” screening.

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