Performance diary: AMERICAN IDIOT

April 21, 2010

April 16 – OK, American Idiot. Spectacular staging by Michael Mayer, who masterminded Spring Awakening, my favorite musical of the last 10 years and one of the most exciting and influential Broadway shows in recent memory. Mayer has his usual weaponry with him: dazzling set by Christine Jones, an art installation I’d be happy to visit on its own, pocked with 37 TV sets creating a Big Brother rec room from hell; state-of-the-art theatrical rock-concert lighting by Kevin Adams; smart original choreography by Steven Hoggett (who organized the memorable movement stuff in Black Watch); real rock ‘n’ roll played by an onstage band (with arrangements by Tom Kitt of Next to Normal fame); fantastically energetic performances by a young cast of all different sizes and shapes.
That much was exciting to me for about half the show. But ultimately the Green Day songs just didn’t hold up as theatrical storytelling for me. I don’t know the album, so the words weren’t familiar to me, and they don’t really read from the stage. The songs are peppy and melodic but eventually they start to run together – there’s one strand of angry white-boy blare and another strand of acoustic emo ballad. Mayer has taken Green Day’s catalogue and shaped a storyline to thread the songs together, focusing on three main characters: John Gallagher’s Johnny aka Jesus of Suburbia, who flees the suburbs for the big city to make it as a musician but has more success as a junkie and a half-hearted lover (his girlfriend, the impressive Rebecca Naomi Jones, is known only as Whatsername); Will, who would have joined that expedition but got his girlfriend pregnant so stays home planted on the sofa watching TV (the sadly underutilized Michael Esper); and Tunny, who (in a witty sequence) gets mesmerized by an Army recruitment video, goes to Iraq, gets his leg blown off, and comes home with a wheelchair and his nurse-wife.  (Tunny is played by Stark Sands, for me the finest performance in the show and he gets to do an aerial ballet with his Extraordinary Girl that isn’t exactly like “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” — see below.) Unfortunately, these stories come off as too generic to be really interesting – they’re sort of generational archetypes, like the characters in Twyla Tharp’s Billy Joel show Movin’ Out. Recognizable and forgettable at the same time.

I wanted to love this show but couldn’t quite get there. Still, I admire Michael Mayer’s fierce devotion to channeling the defiance, anger, confusion, and hormonal power of youth into an alive theatrical canvas. And I respect the conceptual arc of the show – the title starts off as a reference to George W. Bush and his misguided “redneck agenda” but winds up referring to Johnny himself, who has to face the consequences of his own idiotic actions and consider what else is possible now.

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