Friday, April 22, 2011

REVIEW: American Idiot (Final Company)

Review of the April 20 evening performance. At the St. James Theatre on Broadway, New York City. 95 minutes, with no intermission. Starring Van Hughes, Justin Guarini, David Larsen, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Libby Winters, Jeanna De Waal, Joshua Henry and Billie Joe Armstrong . Choreographed by Steven Hoggett. Directed by Michael Mayer.  Closes April 24.

Grade: A

I often return to shows I really enjoyed the first time, and I enjoyed American Idiot both times I saw it.  But if you had said to me that I'd be returning a 3rd time, specifically to see the closing cast of the show, I'd have said you were crazy.  At the time, I'd have been surprised that I saw it twice!  But that second time, I enjoyed it more than the first, and to be honest, I rarely go a week without listening to the cast recording to this day.  Part of it has to do with what I like to call the next to normal effect, another show I saw in previews, after it opened, with the replacement cast, and at its actual closing.  The other part has to do with my frequent theatre companion, Mike, who loves this show like I do next to normal.  He got me to the final show of that, and I got him to as close to the last as I could with this.  And, man, am I glad I did!  Because WOW!  What a show!

It so happens that Wednesday was the show's first anniversary and it was being filmed.  Bittersweet with the imminent closing, the audience was pumped to celebrate, and the full cast was there ready to record their work into the video history of Broadway.  The excitement was palpable, and given the age range of the crowd and multitudes of Green Day fans, it was electric, but respectfully subdued, as if we were all on the same page: celebrate, appreciate, and let the best possible show get into the history books.

Future generations of theatre students may be surprised to watch the video of this performance and wonder why it closed so prematurely.  I could offer a bunch of reasons, but none have to do with the quality of the show or its company.

Here is the one negative thing I have to say about American Idiot: there are still parts of it that I think are overwrought and on the verge of unnecessary.  That said, there are even fewer of them now than when I first saw it.

And now, what I loved:

The replacement cast of principals,
with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes
  • The replacement cast, almost to a person, I prefer to the original company, which is a tall order, and something I'm surprised to say even as I type this.  I loved and respected the work of John Gallagher Jr, Stark Sands, Michael Esper, Christina Sajous, Mary Faber and Tony Vincent.  They abounded in raw energy and a desperation worn on their sleeves and gave completely valid, superb performances.  But only Jeanna de Waal, as Heather, isn't as good as her original counterpart.  And Ms. de Waal does a fine job even though I say that.
  • Original cast member Rebecca Naomi Jones, superb from the first time I saw the show, has really melded with this company, and really brought up her already excellent work.  She brings even more depth and much needed nuance to Whatsername.  And that works especially well, since every other leading performance is much deeper, more grounded without being dull, and exquisitely layered.

Billie Joe Armstrong
  • Many in the audience came to see Billie Joe Armstrong, lead singer of Green Day and co-author of the show.  He is, quite simply, the better of the two St. Jimmy's I saw.  First of all, he sings the role superbly, finding, as the author should, added meaning to certain phrases, adding pauses for emphasis and really attacking the vocals.  But he is also a fine actor - not a refined actor - who knows how to give and take in a scene, and watching him go move for move with Johnny and holding the ensemble in St. Jimmy's drug haze of submission is both super cool to watch and, in retrospect, very chilling and disturbing.  Here's hoping Mr. Armstrong comes back to Broadway and soon.

Libby Winters as Extraordinary Girl
(Shown here with Stark Sands as Tunny)
  • Libby Winters as Extraordinary Girl is terrific, too, in every way.  She is wordlessly strong, compassionate and loving.  There was an almost indefinable intensity to her performance, and the girl can sing!  And there was something kind of all-American warped about her flying sequence with Tunny.  As her burka fell to the floor and exposed her long blonde locks, I was instantly reminded of "I Dream of Jeannie" but also of a Barbie Doll.  And what is more American (and more disturbing) than watching Barbie and G.I. Joe swirl around in a morphine-induced haze?

David Larsen
  • Which brings me to the amazing David Larsen on loan from Billy Elliot.   I am shocked to say that I preferred his performance to that of Mr. Sands, because it was Sands' performance that I truly adored about the original cast.  But Mr. Larsen is somehow the more complete package.  He is intense as an outcast, intense as an Army man, and yet he is flawed, depressed and ultimately strong as he rises to the next challenges his life will bring as a disabled veteran.  His transformation is mesmerizing, emotionally challenging, and absolutely riveting.  And what a singer!  He took a brilliantly played role to the next level.  I look forward to his (next) inevitable star turn.

Jeanne de Waal and Justin Guarini
  • Justin Guarini continues to surprise the hell out of me.  After an absolutely terrific debut in Women on the Verge, he comes out of the Idiot gate at full, explosive gallop.  He is showing an impressive range of talents here, and like Mr. Larsen, I look forward to seeing his growth into a true Broadway star.  Mr. Guarini's performance as couch potato/slacker Will is incredible.  I don't think there is any more anyone could do with the role without destroying its intent.  He performs with such passion and depth, that at last Will is an equal among these three friends, who undergoes as life-changing a journey as as both Johnny and Tunny do, albeit a less obvious one.  Guarini's lack of experience shows only a little as he relies frequently on the same wide-eyed glare expression to show us he REALLY means what he's saying, and one wishes he'd tug on his shirt to expose his abs (nice as they are) every time he gets confused and tries to hide it.  But other than that, WOW!

Van Hughes
  • And finally, there is the exquisitely down to earth, Tony-worthy performance of Van Hughes as Johnny, the self-proclaimed "Jesus of Suburbia."  By taking a decidedly more grounded approach to the role, Johnny, flaws and all, becomes that much more accessible to those of us of another generation, be it older like me or future potential Johnnys.  In him we can see the discontentment with life and the desire to run from it all.  He is the lack of American Dream personified, furious at a world that promises him the great, uninhibited life and never delivers - something all of us can relate to or will be able to in a few short years.  That he sings the role well is to be expected, I guess, but the amazing layers he puts on to this performance makes it almost impossible to take your eyes off of him.  He also does amazing "scene work" as it were with his two buddies, and especially with Ms. Jones, with whom the sexual sparks fly, but also the turmoil of love, love lost and the harsh reality of an important relationship broken, all come together with the same impact as, say, Tony and Maria in West Side Story.  Hughes also transforms from rebellious twenty-something to a grounded fully aware adult, sad as that is.  He exudes sexuality, disillusion and righteous indignation that combine to make the character all the richer, and therefore, the entire show that much more meaningful.

TOP: Andrew Call
BOTTOM: Joshua Henry
  • I would be remiss not to mention the absolutely superb ensemble, who to a person, have really settled down and allow the direction and choreography to have its fullest impact.  In the past, I have been particularly hard on Gerard Canonico, who at last is no longer mugging his way through the show, but contributing without pulling focus.  Miguel Cervantes, Andrew Call and Chase Peacock all continue to do excellent work in small roles and as a part of the whole.  Joshua Henry is still the ultimate "Favorite Son"!  And I have to single out Alysha Umphress who makes the most out of every single second she is on stage.  I find my eye drawn to her and 100% of the time find her to be interesting and on target.

Ultimately, nothing lasts forever on Broadway.  It is the nature of the beast.  Still, it saddens me that a show that is in better shape now than when it opened is closing so soon.  It has been a banner year because they were a part of it.  The title of their curtain call number, "Good Riddance," is inappropriate here.  But last Wednesday, I did have the time of my life.  Bring on the National Tour!

(And thanks, Mike, for letting me find my way on my own with this one.  You were right all along.)

(Photos from, Bruce Glikas photographer)

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