Saturday, May 1, 2010

Review of "American Idiot"

Loud, raucous, full of kinetic energy, yet somewhat unsatisfying, is the new musical, American Idiot, by the punk rock group, Green Day, from their album of the same name. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this high octane tale of suburban alienation performed by a young, dynamic, and talented cast. I qualify my enthusiasm simply because of the lack of any narrative thread that makes the storyline slightly difficult to follow. Green Day enthusiasts—and there were plenty in the packed audience—would belittle such criticism since they know the album backward and forward. But with the non-stop anthems coming in an explosion of sight and sound, deciphering the lyrics, which would help with understanding the frenetic plot, became a losing proposition.

Is this, basically, a generational issue? I would answer in the affirmative. An apt comparison is The Who’s "Tommy," the seminal rock opera that, in 1993, was turned into a Broadway musical. As a teenager in the early 1970’s I knew every song from the album as well as the idiosyncratic storyline. I had no problem following the flow of that show. I knew "Tommy" inside and out so when Pete Townsend and company transformed "Tommy" the LP into Tommy the Broadway extravaganza I knew what to expect and, more importantly, had no difficulty understanding the unconventional plot, which also had little narrative structure. For American Idiot I had no grounding in the source material so while I was captivated by the production the enthrallment was more tempered.

Still, the basic premise is straightforward. Three friends, set out to take on the big city, have their paths irrevocably altered. Tunny, who’s pregnant girlfriend causes him to stay behind, spirals down into disillusionment and apathy; Will, seduced by the lure of glory, enlists in the armed services with tragic consequences; while Johnny becomes seduced by the debauchery and self-indulgence in the unnamed metropolis.

Even with the minimal storyline, the production is riveting with an outstanding cast that never shifts from high gear. How they have the energy and zeal to perform two shows on matinee day is beyond me. There are many first-rate performances in American Idiot, led by John Gallagher, Jr., as Johnny. A Tony winner for Spring Awakening, in American Idiot he seems to have unleashed all his pent-up angst from that show as he extricates himself from the boredom of his suburban detachment to a more noxious, drug infested life in the city.

Tony Vincent, as the downtown, androgynous drug pusher, St. Jimmy, is evil incarnated. I don’t remember the last time I have seen such a repulsive, scary monster strut along a Broadway stage. He was that good.

Director Michael Mayer, along with Green Day front man, Billie Joe Armstrong, deserve praise for crafting a living, breathing musical from one of the most influential and critically-acclaimed albums in recent memory. Mayer keeps the large-scale production pulsating, while adding some creative flourishes such as an artfully crafted high-flying dream sequence. Mayer integrates the creative team’s vision into a throbbing, dynamic piece of musical theater. Kudos to scenic designer, Christine Jones; lighting designer, Kevin Adams; sound, Brian Ronon; and, especially, video/projection designer, Darrel Maloney. They take the vision of American Idiot and have it unfold, not just on-the-ground, but up, down, and above the St. James Theater stage.

American Idiot, slightly flawed, but a powerful force kicking and screaming its way on The Great White Way.

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