“I want to be an American Idiot…”
Let me begin this review by saying, yes this show is similar to Spring Awakening in a few ways. Let me also say that I saw Spring Awakening after it won all the Tony’s (choreography, really?) and after all the hype; I was not won over. I liked Spring Awakening enough to not feel like I’d wasted money on my student rush ticket and not having seen Rent (I know, I know) I just didn’t get they hype. While I didn’t mind the whole “they’re using hand mics” thing, I felt the choreography (I love ya Dr. Jones but…) was awkward and kind of spastic. And this was during the season of Legally Blonde (jump rope choreo!!) and Mary Poppins (Step In Time… ENOUGH SAID!!). What show am I reviewing again? Ah yes, American Idiot, which, as I’m sure you know, opened last night at the St. James Theatre. Being a fan of Green Day I was excited when I heard this show was happening (even more so because Rebecca Naomi Jones is a family friend). My first trepidation came when the theatre was announced. The St. James is a 1709 seat house that I still fear a show with such a specific audience will not be able to continuously sell out for very long, but here’s hoping they do and for years to come.
So, this one-act new pop-punk musical (as Charles Isherwood penned it) is directed by Michael Mayer and is the stage version of Green Day’s multi-platinum 2004 album of the same title about angsty youth looking for a way out of their less than entertaining suburban surroundings. As the curtain slowly rises an “overture” of George W. Bush quotes is heard about being with us or with the terrorists. The youthfully exuberant cast stands silently onstage in front of a wall of newspaper clippings and TV screens which throughout the show display images pertaining to each song. From one cast member hanging upside down from chains next to the car on the wall to the trio of best friends (John Gallagher, Jr. as Johnny, Michael Esper as Will and Stark Sands as Tunny) singing about living in suburbia and wanting to get out, the opening number (“American Idiot”) quickly informs the audience of what kind of show they are about to watch. The rest of the story basically follows the three friends as Johnny heads to the big city, falls for a girl and drugs, loses the girl, cleans up, realizes he still isn’t happy and heads back home; Will must face fatherhood but finds his priorities aren’t where they should be and loses his girlfriend (played by Mary Faber, last seen in Avenue Q) and his child; and Tunny who decides to enlist in the army, is shipped off to Iraq, is injured and returns back home, not lauded as a hero but is reunited with Johnny.
The original LP “American Idiot” told a story from beginning to end so the show’s book, written by Michael Mayer and Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong is not the show’s strongest point and is used rather sparingly but is effective in furthering the storyline already embedded in the songs. The show is mostly sung through and those not familiar with the band or even the music might find the story a bit tough to follow but will probably still be able to understand the general plot. Fans of the band will hear favorites “American Idiot”, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, “21 Guns”, and “Time of Your Life”. The music itself has been arranged for the stage by Tony award winner Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and in many cases has only enhanced what Billie Joe and his band mates have already created. Those of the faint of heart should be weary of sitting too close to the stage for there are points in the show when the bass becomes a little much but it all adds to the ambiance of the show.
The choreography, by Steven Hoggett, did remind me of the choreography in Spring Awakening but here, in most cases, it blends smoothly into the characters and in several instances is poignant and telling of the emotional distress of those performing it. The stage direction and scenic design (Christine Jones) utilizes the stage, on which the eight piece orchestra sits, in a very well thought out way, a staircase upstage left that one musician and several actors use throughout the show. Even some of the TV screens can be removed to reveal a room or banner behind it. A scaffold set piece transforms into a bus and is driven off stage in an almost awe-inspiring way. Lighting, done effectively here by Kevin Adams, is not so traditional in that it is telling of the emotion on stage in a different way than normal and the projected images that appear towards the end of the show are graphic and in conjunction with the choreography bring everything to a moving breaking point.
Now onto the performances. John Gallagher, Jr. I’m sure feels comfortable in this show not only because he was in Spring Awakening but also because he himself is a singer/songwriter. He not only embodies Johnny in everything he does but his choices, from his speech to his facial expressions, his body movement to the way he tugs his hair, the lyrics he sings seem to be spontaneously resounding around the house and not something he does eight times a week. The performances for the most part are very organic, something this production depends upon, and Gallagher, Jr. does not fail to deliver. Stark Sands (Journey’s End) as Tunny and Michael Esper (A Man for All Seasons) as Will have smaller parts but are equally as adept at delivering the necessary emotion. Sands’ number with the Extraordinary Girl (a song called “Extraordinary Girl), who is played by incredible newcomer Christina Sajous, was my favorite number in the show, and is a hallucination Tunny has while in a hospital, the entire number being performed as a beautiful aerial ballet. While some feel that this number comes a bit from left field and I must admit that when Sajous first begins to descend from above, I thought “oh, come on” but once the song begins you understand why it is there. Rebecca Naomi Jones (Passing Strange) plays Whatsername, Johnny’s love interest. Her character arc is probably the most clear of any of them and Jones pulls it off effortlessly, in both her choices and her crystal clear voice. Tony Vincent (Rent) as St. Jimmy, Johnny’s angry manifestation, is perfect as a drug pushing manipulative Marilyn Manson esque presence. Even the ensemble, which is made up of a varied group of performers, each bring an energy that is infectious and moving, making some wonder how they can do it eight shows a week.
American Idiot will undoubtedly be loved by some and quickly dismissed by others. Due to its built-in audience of the younger generations, older people may be turned off by the angst on stage and the subject matter but this show definitely delivers 95 minutes of intense and thought-provoking theatre; or at least I believe so. Yes, the book is sparse and the characters are more archetypal rather than specific people, but they are supposed to be more representative of a larger group. Even if you cannot personally identify yourself with any of the characters, in these times, post Bush administration (which you obviously lived through), it is hard to not know anyone who was in some way affiliated with the military, was affected by the war, or was/has a tormented youth living under their roof. The music draws you in and if you let it, it will make you think about your surroundings, familiar and foreign, long after the house lights have come on and you’re walking down 44th street humming “Nobody likes you, everyone left you, they’re all out without you, having fun!”