Friday, December 23, 2011

Guest Blogger: #UticaRocks!

Those of you who follow this blog regularly know that my constant companion for theatre trips to New York City is Mike.  He has occasionally "guest blogged" here, mostly about his favorite show, American Idiot.  Perhaps it was a bit crazy for this busy time of the year, and all, but when he called and asked me to join him for the "tech in" for the National Tour of the show, I couldn't resist.  Not really because the show is a favorite of mine - I appreciate it, but it isn't my favorite - but really because I can't resist a unique theatre experience.  For me it was a no lose opportunity.  My thoughts follow his.



I’ll admit it: I’m an American Idiot fanatic.  This past Wednesday, I got in my car and drove for seven hours to see the first public performance of the touring production.  My destination was Utica, New York, where I met up with Jeff, whose drive had been a bit shorter.

The drama began a few hours before the show, when I checked my email and found a message from Andrea with Utica’s Broadway Theatre League.  It seems that the American Idiot press people needed our seats for photography purposes.  Did we mind if she gave us an upgrade by relocating us a few rows forward to pit seating?  After some discussion about whether that would be too close, we decided we didn’t mind.  She also threw in a program signed by the cast (one for each of us), which she kindly delivered to us at our seats just before the show started.  She handled the situation very well, and our seats ended up being amazing, in the second overall row, right in the center.

Van Hughes as Johnny in
the Broadway production
Photo by Joan Marcus

The Stanley Theatre itself was splendid, and appeared from my vantage point to be largely full at this first performance.  I gathered from some pre-performance chatter that director Michael Mayer, music director Tom Kitt, and producer Tom Hulce were all in the building, though I didn’t see them (I guess Wolfie doesn’t stagedoor).  There were, as expected, a lot of younger people in the audience, which seemed very appreciative.  Some of the young audience members just in front of us were perhaps a bit too into it, laughing and cheering at parts of the show where I wouldn’t think to do so, but I’d much rather have that problem than find myself in an audience that was dead.

And what about the object of our long drives, the show itself?  It was simply a wonderful experience, and one hundred percent worth the investment in time and money (mostly time).  Since this was the very first public performance of the production, and was billed as a tech show (the first of two) in preparation for the real opening in Toronto next week, I won’t write a review until after I’ve seen it in Raleigh in early February.  In particular, I will make no mention of anything negative at this time – but I will happily note that there wouldn’t have been many things to mention anyhow.  This show is in great shape already, with nary a first-night jitter or any technical difficulties that I could detect.

Tunny, Johnny and Will: Friends Forever

Heather (left), Whatsername (center) and the Female Ensemble

Instead of a review, then, I’ll provide a brief list of the differences I noticed between this production and what I saw (seven times) on Broadway.


  • The towering walls that frame the set have been simplified a bit (for the better, I think).  They remain huge and impressive and full of flat screens of various sizes, but a basic black paint job has replaced all those posters, photos, and clippings.  Various words and messages are faintly visible over the black, and there are records and sound equipment mounted sparsely on the walls, to give an impression similar to a local club or concert venue.
  • The staircase at stage left is about half as tall as it was in New York, extending only up to the door where St. Jimmy makes his entrance.
  • The raised platform has been eliminated, the one that ascended for the IV-drug ballet in “Give Me Novacaine” and for the ladies of “Letterbomb.”
  • I’m not certain of the details, but I think lighting has been simplified a bit.  There seemed to be a little more reliance on lighting fixtures attached to the back wall (classic Kevin Adams) – blue lights during “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” red ones during “St. Jimmy,” and lots of colorful neon near the end.
  • Costumes have been adjusted in places.  Neither Jeff nor I remembered a shirtless guy in a pink tie from the Broadway version, for instance.  Incidentally, the title of this blog post comes from a tee shirt worn by a pregnant Heather early in the show, to the great delight of the Utica crowd.  (I wonder if this gag will be repeated in each city on the tour.)

St. Jimmy (Joshua Kobak, center) and the Ensemble

The Cast of the First National Tour
of American Idiot


  • There weren’t too many changes in the material itself, but I don’t remember St. Jimmy ever kissing Johnny full on the lips as he did here.
  • There was a rather funny gag during the musical break in “Holiday” when an ensemble member (Larkin Bogan), pretending to drive the bus, suddenly noticed there was no steering wheel and yelled out, “there’s no f---ing wheel!”
  • What used to be Johnny’s monologue at the very end of the show (after “Whatsername” but before the curtain call) is now parceled out among the main cast members.  Tunny, for instance, says the words “my country.”


  • The ensemble has been reduced in size just a bit, from 12 to 10.  The only time I noticed this was during “Letterbomb,” when there was probably one less angry young woman on stage than there was in New York.
  • The three string players in New York have been reduced to a single intrepid cellist being carted all over the stage.  There were (I think) prerecorded tracks for the violin and viola.
  • I have to say this: the drummer is really hot.

Anyhow, most of these changes are about what you’d expect for a national tour, and do not affect the spirit of the show or its impact.  It remains as powerful an experience as it was on Broadway.  And while this isn’t a review, I will mention three performances that I thought were especially strong: Van Hughes, the ideal Johnny, continuing from Broadway; Leslie McDonel, an ensemble member on Broadway, who has a terrific voice and just the right attitude for Heather; and Joshua Kobak as a perfectly creepy St. Jimmy, who looks much like Van’s Johnny after a few years of hard living.

If [anyone from] Broadway World is reading this, the show curtain was plain and red, much as it was at the St. James.  And there was merchandise, much of it looking just like it did before, minus the words “New York City”; there was also a window card with a lot of positive critical blurbs, and a cool new black-gray tee shirt.  And if that one guy from All That Chat is reading this, there are no (real) gunshots.

Leslie McDonel, Jake Epstein, Scott J. Campbell and Nicci Claspell
(Heather, Will, Tunny, and the Extraordinary Girl)


Like Mike, I will not offer any real sense of a review, but some thoughts about this very first public performance.  I only saw the show 3 prior times, and always from the mezzanine of the St. James Theatre, which I always felt was a great view.  And for the larger picture and to appreciate the larger themes, it is just fine.  But when you can literally smell the perfume Heather is wearing, and can see the sweat dripping off the chin of Will just as he takes to his sofa perch stage right, American Idiot takes on a completely different persona.  From up close, you can see just how much raw emotion and remarkable detail each person on the stage is giving in their amazing performances.  And I'm talking every single cast member, from Van Hughes down to the ensemble members with the least amount of stage time.  It is would be easy to write off this show as an overwrought staged rock concert.  And from a distance, I have to admit, I felt that way by and large, as the music combined with the frenetic choreography seems to be anger first, nuance of emotion last. From up close, you can see the details of the emotional journey of the characters.  From up close, the choreography isn't just synchronized body jerking, it is dancing full of emotion, intensity, and a sense of humor, all of which serve the real themes of the musical to its fullest.

And I agree 100% with Mike's comments above.

By far, this outing to American Idiot was my favorite, and I can now fully understand exactly what it is that appeals to Mike so much.  I don't just appreciate the effort now, I feel alive and changed from the experience.  And isn't that the best thing theatre can do?

Oh!  And the drummer is cute, but the shirtless guy with the hot pink tie and tight black pants is not just amazing to look at, but someone with a lot of talent to look for in the future.  His name is Dan Gleason, and he is going to be a star some day very soon.

(First National Tour rehearsal photos from by Doug Hamilton)

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  1. I'm seeing the show at the Detroit stop. I'm traveling over 10 hours to get there. I was AI 6 times in New York (driving from Tennessee 4 times; seeing the show twice on 2 seperate trips). This show is the first (an only) show I've seen more than once on Broadway. I will bill myself as a fanatic. Although I've had mixed feelings about some of the changes I've heard about, I have no doubt this cast will pull it off. I've seen Van and Leslie in the roles ofr Johnny & Heather on Broadway and loved them both (I also saw Van play the role of Tunny). I'm hoping to catch the show in San Fransisco as well (and anywhere else I can get the money for the trip). I've blogged about American Idiot several times on my own blog and love to hear that other people love the show as much as I do.

  2. Cara,

    Mike here. I'm glad to find a kindred spirit! :) I think the changes are pretty mild; if there's one thing I missed, it was the two string players.

    State College is the closest tour stop to home, but I have class both nights, so I'm going to see it in Raleigh. And then, hopefully, one last time (with Jeff) in San Francisco next summer.

    Did you ever see Andrew Call as St. Jimmy? He's my favorite.

    I'd love to read your thoughts on the show.

    Take care,


  3. My friend and I were going to go to Raleigh, but it came down to a money issue more than anything. :'( I saw Tony Vincent, Billie Joe, Joshua Kobak, and there was one time that it wasn't in the Playbill who was playing St. Jimmy (no lie).
    On the cast page it was listed as St Jimmy played by St. Jimmy. And there were no inserts. I don't remember, but from what I can figure it was either Andrew or Chase and I'm 95% sure it was Andrew (it's been a while, so I don't remember exactly). My fav St. Jimmy was Tony. But I never really saw a bad St. Jimmy (though Billie Joe was probably my least favorite).
    I can't wait to write about it on my blog. I'm also fully planning on taking an entire pack of tissues because if it's anything like the final time I saw it on Broadway, I pretty much cried through the entire show. You can read about that experience here: LOL!
    I heard the choreography for 21 Guns has been it true??

  4. Nice Review. The one thing that makes me disappointed are the words in parenthesis. Utica is a great place, and just like all other small Cities there is always room for improvement and encouragement, but to have someone say "at least for two nights" who doesn't reside here, and doesn't know what we do regularly, kinda bums me out.. was it necessary? But we had a great time with the show, enjoyed being the stepping point, and did our best to accommodate all the cast and crew! Thank you for your opinion and mentioning our fair City to your readership!

  5. Cara, I remember the credit that said "St. Jimmy played by St. Jimmy" too - it was one of the days during Billy Joe Armstrong's run when he wasn't in it, and it indeed was Andrew Call. So you probably saw him too!

    Regarding the choreography, I'm hard pressed to identify much that changed in "21 Guns." If anything, it would have been the "hand choreography" that the ensemble does, but really it was nothing very different than before.

    Robin - You have a great point and I've asked Jeff to take that part out. I guess I live in a place (Glen Burnie, Md.) that, unlike Utica, truly does not rock, and if a visitor implied that it did, even for two nights, I would tell them they were crazy. :) Anyhow, I apologize for that.

  6. Saw the show in Detroit last weekend. LOVED IT! Planning a trip next weekend to North Carolina. And then possibly St. Louis. Obessed? You bet I am. :)
    The cast for the tour is amazing.

  7. to answer your question, yes, heather is wearing a different shirt in every city. I'm from St. Louis, MO and she wore an STL Cardinals shirt in our show.


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