Thursday, April 29, 2010

CD Review: American Idiot

Easily the most energetic, frenetic and timely musical of the season, Green Day's American Idiot, steamrolled its way onto Broadway earlier this month.  The reviews, predictably, were mixed, just as they have been for every musical this season.  But the critics at least recognized that the envelope was being pushed again, and that perhaps this generation's Hair had found its way to the stage.  The same day the show opened, the Original Broadway Cast Recording was released.  A deluxe 2 disc set, the album is given a treatment that is usually reserved for only the biggest blockbusters.  The show may just become that afterall.

Title: American Idiot
Artist: Original Broadway Cast, featuring Green Day
Label: Reprise Records
Number: 523724-2
Format: Double CD
Case: Standard Jewel Case
Booklet: Full color booklet, with a synopsis, a note from director Michael Mayer, complete lyrics, credits and full color production photos.

The Broadway Company of American Idiot

Of the Show, I Wrote: "The staging and concept is heavy-handed – the opening sound bite montage, the upside down American flags on the screens, the entire 7-11 sequence, and the copious, dangerous and very distracting amounts of trash that litters the floor. I knew we would be in trouble when the first thing you notice is one of the “rebels” hanging upside down watching TV while giving the screen the finger. Anarchy or an excuse for a head rush? I’m betting the idea is the former, but the truth is the latter. And that is much of what ails American Idiot. It wants so bad to be an earnest, important piece, but it can be very hard to take seriously, especially when the watch-cry of the show is 'take a fucking shower!'  But just when I was ready to hate the whole thing, [Michael] Mayer (and [Steven] Hoggett, too) throws me a curve or two, and creates some beautiful and stunning stage images. First, there is the mind-blowing road trip sequence to “Holiday” the catchiest tune in the show.  After that, pretty much all of the up-tempo stuff goes by in a blur, mostly because of the sameness of the staging, but it also points up the other incredible moments – the quiet, introspective numbers: “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” where the three guys sing this anthem from different places, but all together with only their voices and the guitars they play; the equally quiet “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and the powerful full company ballad, “21 Guns,” amazing for its meaning, staging and sound. Finally, there is the entire Army hospital sequence, including “Extraordinary Girl” which has a burka-clad angel float in from above and transform into an “I Dream of Jeannie” fantasy for the figuratively and literally flying morphened Tunny. It is those moments that show us everything American Idiot could have been.
Rebecca Naomi Jones, Tony Vincent and John Gallagher, Jr.

Of the Performances, I Wrote: "The entire 19 member cast of the show is so committed to every single second of the show. No one gives less than 100%, 100% of the time. And the 12 member ensemble goes through dozens of rapid costume changes and comes across like there are at least twice as many of them. The offer amazing support to the equally amazing 7 named main cast members.  As the Extraordinary Girl, Christina Sajous is both mysteriously sexy, and wonderfully down to earth; Rebecca Naomi Jones works the hell out of her character, Whatsername, alternately, sexy, vulnerable and strong. Mary Faber, as the mother-to-be Heather, does the absolute most she can do with the very little she is given to work with. (The three lead females are wondrous in “21 Guns.”) And Tony Vincent does everything that can be expected from such a one dimensional character as St. Jimmy. His voice is thrilling and his presence is unmatched, but he is emblematic of the whole show’s need to take it down a notch or two.  Michael Esper, as couch potato Will, has a nice voice that blends well with the others. Stark Sands, as Tunny, offers a nice counterpoint to the whole show. When he is part of the intensity, his is a detailed, nuanced and quiet performance. Mr. Sands has an excellent voice, and has created a fully realized deep character out of virtually nothing. I hope his name is among those on the Tony nominee list. His performance from “Extraordinary Girl” through to the end is superb in every way.  The biggest draw here, of course, is John Gallagher, Jr., who has reunited with Mayer to create another variation on the angst theme – this time as a 20-something. He has the perfect voice for this show – rock and Broadway all in one, and you really believe him when he wails, 'I don’t wanna be an American Idiot!'”

Green Day

And now the CD Review:  With Green Day themselves playing on the recording, along with the entire onstage band, the sound of the music may just be a little more full than when seen live, but it really also points out three major things.  First, Green Day (and lead Billie Joe Armstrong) has an amazing gift for succinct but profound imagery in the lyrics.  Second, I was so wrong.  Completely.  Totally.  These songs do not all sound the same, nor do they all go by in a blur.  Their catchy riffs and melodies go perfectly with the lyrics, and show terrific range, from the catchy pop-rock of the title song, to the equally catchy pub anthem "Holiday," to the rock anthemic, "We Are the Waiting."  And I stand by what I said about the profundity of the opposite end of the spectrum ballads, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "Wake Me Up Before September Ends," and the stirring and emotionally charged "21 Guns," better here in its fully realized version than the original by the group.

Without all of the sensory overload of the live show and staging, the songs take on a life of their own.  They are clear, the selection of who sings what lines or whole songs becomes more apparent (though worthy of more in depth study as I listen to the album over and over).  I am very relieved that, in fact, despite not being able to understand the words the whole time in the theatre, that I did get all of the plot.  I still think the lack of book and development is an issue for the show as a musical.  And just a little more exposition might have clarified the intention of the character of St. Jimmy, another area where my opinion has not changed from my review of the show.

My very good friend Mike, whose expertise lies more in the music than the presentation, tells me that while he was already a fan of Green Day, this version of American Idiot creates, for him, a whole new appreciation for just how good they are.  His reaction to the stage show was vastly different, centered mostly on the music and the arrangements of the music and vocals.  He, like me, is completely engrossed by the work Tom Kitt did on the score, particularly the addition of strings, and the use of vocals to supplement the rock only arrangements.  He is the one who brought the Irish pub/rally song quality of "Holiday" to my attention, and the "Eleanor Rigby"-esque strings in "Last of the American Girls/She's a Rebel."  (Thanks, Mike, for your input and explanatons!)

Michael Esper, Stark Sands and John Gallagher, Jr.

For me the songs that got my blood pumping in the theatre are still those that excite me the most - "21 Guns," "Holiday," the "Extraordinary Girl" sequence.  And I still maintain that "Whatsername" is an anti-climactic ending, which is completely unnecessary.  So what if it is also the last song on the original album?  I think it would make a great interruption in the "Homecoming" sequence, which could resume and end the show with "We're Coming Home Again."

I'm pretty sure the cast recording has negated a great deal of my original review.  The last time I was this excited by a cast recording was when they released next to normal, and before that, Spring Awakening.  And so I am thrilled that within a few weeks, I'll be returning to the St. James to re-visit American Idiot.  I'll share my thoughts then, and look forward to being completely swept away by Jesus of Suburbia and his pals, Will and Tunny.


(Photos of the Broadway company by Paul Kolnik)

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