Wednesday, April 21, 2010

REVIEW: American Idiot

Review of the April 3 evening preview performance. At the St. James Theatre on Broadway, New York City. 95 minutes, with no intermission. Starring John Gallagher, Jr., Michael Esper, Mary Faber, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Christina Sajous, Stark Sands and Tony Vincent. Choreographed by Steven Hoggett. Directed by Michael Mayer.

As those of you who follow my blog know, ever since the Berkley production of this show was announced, I have been excited about seeing what could be made theatrically of the Green Day album American Idiot. Well, I saw the show early in its preview period (and keep that in mind as you read, for things might have changed somewhat). There are many good things – excellent, even – about the show, but ultimately it left me cold, a little angry, and mostly disappointed.

The Album (works) and The Book (doesn’t): I'm thinking that Time magazine is right in calling the album a masterpiece. Its ideas and themes make it cohesive, and the sheer poetry of some of the lyrics is beautiful. The same can be said about the songs added to the show from their newest album, 21st Century Breakdown. And that an entire musical can be gotten out of an album that is unified by ideas rather than by a plot is remarkable. That said, I don't think the songs are consistently rich enough to sustain an evening without the aid of more book.

The book, such as it is by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, is merely a few recited “postcards” that help us know that time has progressed and that perceived wounds are gotten, opened, dealt with and healing. I like the postcards idea thematically, in so much as they are hand-written and snail mailed versus buying into the technology driven world of emails, blogs and instant messages. But I don't think the show would be hurt at all with some actual scenes; they are asking the songs to do more work than they are capable of. I’m pretty sure orchestrator Tom Kitt, who has done brilliant, Tony-worthy work here already, could have gotten with Armstrong and group to create musical interludes that feature wordless staging to fill in the gaps. This is a rock opera after all, and musical interludes wouldn’t interfere, but could enhance, and even make the few spoken words all the more dramatically impactful.

Jesus of Suburbia: John Gallagher, Jr.

(Plot spoilers ahead!) The story, such as it is, borrows and outright steals from other shows about rebellion, including but not limited to two current Broadway shows and a former tenant of the St. James Theatre – West Side Story, Hair, and The Who’s Tommy, respectively. American Idiot follows the trials and tribulations of early 21st Century 20-somethings who are full of self-loathing, self-pity and a nearly complete withdrawal from anything society deems appropriate. Sound familiar? The lead character, Johnny (John Gallagher, Jr.), is angry at the world as he sees it, which has been fed to him through a barrage of sound bites which pass for important historical, political points. And who can blame him? Part of being an American means wanting more for yourself and less of your government and authority, and when you are young and know everything, everyone else just pisses you off. Whether you call our hero Jesus of Suburbia, Riff or Berger, the central character in all of these instances suffers from the same dichotomy: dissatisfaction with the status quo and a society that has turned a deaf ear to his cries, yet he has become so self-involved, he cannot recognize any good fortune or happiness that might come his way.

A guy like this surely has buddies, equally wallowing and in need of support. In American Idiot, they come in the form of slacker couch-potato, Will (Michael Espey), and impressionable follower and fellow slacker, Tunny (Stark Sands). What are three guys, mad at the world and doing nothing about it but complain, to do? Road trip, of course! Well, two of the three actually start the trip as one must stay behind and (shock of shocks) fulfill his responsibilities as a parent-to-be along with slacker mom with a new awareness (Mary Faber) named Heather.

The Boys: Michael Esper, Stark Sands, John Gallagher, Jr.

After a stop to trash a 7-11, symbol of America’s ills, and a few all day booze sleep offs, Tunny is seduced by the glamour of celebrity endorsed war, and he enlists. That leaves poor Johnny to fend for himself. But Mr. Loner is never really alone for long, and soon he runs into two people who will change his life forever: the love of his life, Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent) an Acid Queen rip-off, who helps Johnny further distance himself from life with serious drugs. Soon, Johnny’s life is spiraling out of control. But Johnny isn’t just self-loathing, he is a pretty smart cookie who realizes he has hit rock bottom, and returns home to try his best at conforming to American society. In perhaps the show’s best, most subtle moment of commentary, Johnny leaves behind a destructive idiocy to become another kind of American idiot – a computer geek, stuck like the rest of us in a cubicle hell. The difference is that Johnny actually got out and tried to find something else; the rest of us gave up and now envy his bravery.

And before the final curtain, we find out what happens to both Will (and family) and Tunny. You can probably guess, but I have given too much away – though none of it should be remotely surprising – already. As I re-read what I just wrote, I am shocked that I got that much out of it, to be perfectly honest.

The Girls: Rebeccan Naomi Jones (left, center)

The Creative Idiots (lights, sets, sound and costumes work!):
Given that one of the points the show is trying to make that that we are overwhelmed by the media – terrorists in their own right – it seems only appropriate that the set (designed by Christine Jones) is a monolithic box, covered with headlines – some true, most sensationalistic. The walls are interrupted by all sizes of television screens, a perhaps too obvious symbol of an overpowering media. But they are used to best effect when they stop being part of the giant blur, but focus us (and stop us long enough to look) when they contain test patterns overlaid with messages like “Please Pay Attention”. Have we really come to this? I’m afraid so. Brian Ronan’s sound is superb, starting us off with an ominous, almost Emergency Broadcasting System, mix of sound bites that crescendo into a frightening cacophony as the curtain – last bastion of civilized ways – slowly rises to reveal a cast of outcasts, clad in spot-on costumes designed by Andrea Lauer, who has fully embraced the 21st century version of rebellious anti-socialists, but has also really gotten the irony that for all of their need to be non-conformists, they all look alike. This theme recurs, both as the ensemble, in underwear, “enlists” and later when they are in and home from the war. She also makes wonderful use of the glittery automatons that sell us things in infomercials in two key scenes. And as truly excellent all of the creative elements are, it will be an absolute travesty of injustice if Kevin Adams loses the Tony for Best Lighting of a Musical this year. What that man does with color and a light bulb or two is breathtaking.

The Direction and the Choreography (works and doesn’t):
I think a lot of what has been imposed upon it works, but just as much doesn't, and that is a shame, because there is a lot to American Idiot. And that, I’m afraid has more to do with the direction and choreography than anything else.

I was absolutely floored by Michael Mayer’s work on Spring Awakening, and he seems to be the logical choice for Idiot. But where “less is more” must have been his mantra with the former show, “excess, excess, excess” must have been the new chant for the latter. Perhaps in his exuberance to bring the piece to the stage, he threw every trick he had into it. It is mostly excessive in volume, intensity and message, which, I guess is everything. The staging is unbearably busy; it is impossible to catch everything and the lack of focus confuses the issue way more than it needs to. For example, there are several times when you know Gallagher, Jr. is singing, but where he is on the set is questionable. I mean playing “Where’s Waldo?” really shouldn’t be part of this experience. Of course, he is not alone in making this too busy. No, Steven Hoggett the choreographer needs to bring it all down a notch or two, too. I have never seen so much running around and repetition in such a short span of time. It is no wonder the entire cast is out of breath and glistening with sweat from the moment the curtain rises. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if there was some variety, but mostly, it is head-down, shoulders slouched posturing and boot stomping, or it is reminiscent of the “zombie stomp” sequence in Michael Jackson’s Thriller, with the added bonus of a move we used to call “the lawn mower rope pull” in the 80’s. I’ll be fair: there are a few times where the dancing quiets down, but mainly so that the boys and girls can fondle themselves a la Spring Awakening. (Mr. Mayer likes the masturbatory images a bit much, I think...)

Stark Sands and Company

At other times, the staging and concept is heavy-handed – the aforementioned 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!” Or maybe it is a hero, who has nothing but contempt and disdain for anything commercial, wears an Indiana Jones t-shirt, which represents the apex of commercial films! (I wish I could say they are going for irony, but it just isn’t that smart. Not even for the benefit of the doubt.)

Tony Vincent as St. Jimmy

But just when I was ready to hate the whole thing, Mayer (and 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, which in the space of about five minutes has the premises set up, characters leaving, staying behind, an amazing transformation of scaffolding into a bus, and some gasp-inducing projections (by Darrel Maloney). As the bus leaves the stage, your mouth is agape. 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 Idiotcould have been.

The Company (works!!!!):
The entire 19 member cast of the show is so committed to every single second of the show. No one gives less than 100%, though a couple of members might do a bit less scenery chewing, 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.

Christina Sajous and Stark Sands

As the Extraordinary Girl, Christina Sajous is both mysteriously sexy, and wonderfully down to earth; that she can pull off both the fantasy girl and the caring Army nurse/Army buddy role speaks to the detail and subtlety of her performance. Similarly, 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 and Mary Faber

Michael Esper, as couch potato Will, literally never leaves the stage, and just by that virtue alone deserves commendation. Even in the dark, he is fully committed and in character. He 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!” He is incredibly intense, and is giving more than 100% every single second. He is leading this company by example, but one hopes he doesn’t burn out. Still, one would wish that he were a little less “Moritz” and a little more “Johnny.” His line readings are straight from his former show – not entirely out of place, but unoriginal at best. Even so, at 25, the young man can carry a show. Congratulations to him.

The last show I've thought this much about was Spring Awakening...maybe I liked it more than I even thought... maybe not...


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