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American Idiot

Among others, Tom Hulce & Ira Pittleman, Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Association with Awaken Entertainment, John Pinckard and John Domo Present: AMERICAN IDIOT, Music by Green Day; Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong; Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer at the St.James Theatre, Broadway.

I have ten more shows from my USA trip to blog. So here goes.

I arrived in New York Tuesday afternoon and went to see AMERICAN IDIOT at the St James Theater that night. This work was still in preview, but I chose to see it because I thought it would have the dynamic of a NEW show, still fretting through its creative birthing and so really live and because it began life at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, which I had just visited in the Bay Area – the latest export to New York from this restlessly diverse community leader.

This is not my idea of music that I would choose to listen to usually. The band Green Day, led by front man Billie Joe Armstrong, a punk-rock band originating in the Berkeley/Oakland area, in 2004, released, a few months before the re-election of Bush, the smash hit album AMERICAN IDIOT. Michael Mayer, the Director of this show, recalls, “For whatever reason, it just spoke to me. I thought, my God, these punks from Oakland are talking about what it’s like to live in Bush’s America right now. And the rage and the love in equal measure through out the album I just found incredibly complicated and dazzling – and tuneful.”

From an article in Time Out New York by Rob Weinert-Kendt:
But theatrical? Armstrong’s earnest, anguished lyrics loosely sketched the emotional journey of an aimless antihero (“Jesus of Suburbia”) through a dystopian landscape (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”), where he falls under the thrall of a charismatic drug dealer (“St. Jimmy”) and a fiery, idealistic girlfriend (“She’s a Rebel”, “Extraordinary Girl”), then looses them both and returns to the comfortable oblivion of the suburbs (“Homecoming”, “Whatsername”).

In expanding the original album’s triangle of Jesus-Jimmy-Whatsername, Michael Mayer added two pals for Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.) : Will (Michael Esper), who stays home against his wishes (his girlfriend becomes pregnant); and Tunney (Stark Sands), who enlists to fight in Iraq. Three American idiots are created in this theatre version and expands the possible adventures that did happen to this youth culture. Further music was culled from Green Day’s 2009 release 21st CENTURY BREAKDOWN.

In this ‘venerable’ Broadway theatre, we enter down a passage that has been scenically distressed with graffiti and grunge. We take our seats and a huge traditional rich red curtain with gold fringing greets us. The contrast is palpable. The aesthetic clash amusing and wittily heralds the invasion of the youthful barbarism of the slackers, the American Idiots. In silence with fading curtain lighting, slowly the curtain rises and BANG! an eight piece band led by Carmel Dean explodes into loud action with the opening song “American Idiot” sung by a hyper-active ensemble, choreographed (Steven Hoggett) to bustle and thrust energy out at us in our comfortable seats. This will be no sit back and relax show, this is a sit up and deal show or leave us to get on with it show. We all stayed. Ninety odd minutes of thrash and crash.

On a huge set (Christine Jones) stretching maybe fifty feet tall, way, way up into the theatre flies, that wraps across the upstage width of the stage, splattered with fading, torn pop posters from many passing eras and 50 or so video screens of different sizes, on which film and documentary images, both recorded and live, adding pertinent commentary to the action and politics from the times, to the visual experience of the show are offered (Darrel Maloney). This is a mix of industrial and contemporary grunge. A large, tall, portable metal staircase disconnects from the back wall and is wheeled about to facilitate visual stage dynamics, choreographically used. . The furniture is portable and minimal. The costume design (Andrea Lauer) is ‘theatrical’ contemporary grunge.

Despite the noise level, and that often the lyrics were squandered in the relentless barrage of musical noise, the gist of the events were apparent. Tom Kitt, the Musical Supervisor, Arranger, and Orchestrator, who also co-arranged the score for NEXT TO NORMAL, still practices the notion that loud is good, louder is better and loudest is best – he should note that is not an infallible belief, or necessary practice, at least in the theatre where a lot of other artistic collaboration might compensate for the stand and bombard that a rock concert might demand.

The energy of the principal company and the tirelessly worked ensemble were a hook to the pleasure of much else. The commitment of John Gallagher Jr.(who I last saw in SPRING AWAKENING),Stark Sands, Michael Esper, Tony Vincent (as St. Jimmy), Mary Faber, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Christina Sajous and Joshua Henry, (from the ensemble cast in the “Favorite Son” number) is exemplary. Of special note is that this ensemble are rarely not ‘on’. Robust and excited they are – a persistent force for attentiveness and story clarity they are. The choreography of Steven Hoggett is streaming from the exaggerated observation of everyday life, the background of Mr Hoggett’s work with his English based company Frantic Assembly, and the memory of the cleverness of the Olivier Award winning work for Theatre Choreography BLACK WATCH, are evident and usefully informative to the story telling –when the lyrics fail to communicate the body language may. The aerial dance sequence, bringing back memories of Cirque de Soleil wizardry and wonder, was spectacular and, for me, a highlight.

This was, despite my personal struggle with the music a very exciting beginning to my Broadway holiday. This Broadway “punk-popera” is arresting and pumping with energy, that meets the younger contemporary audience full on. I personally felt it was a big step forward from the disappointing SPRING AWAKENING which I saw on Broadway a few years ago. The critics raved and it did win Tony awards, so what would I know? How will this show fare?

1 replies to “American Idiot”

  1. Good review. But I don't understand how you couldn't have liked Spring Awakening. I mean that musical speaked to me and actually made me cry, American Idiot did the same, because I am a huge Green Day fan. The acting was great, so was the staging and the music. The Tony voters missed out so much, I was expecting Best Leading Actor for JGJ, Best Supporting actor for Tony Vincent. Best Orchestrations, and I was expecting it to win Best Musical. I enjoyed Memphis, but I thought the story has been done before, a white man falls in love with an African-American as friends, during segregation. But the book was amazing too being it was so short. It is a rock opera, which is why they rarely talked. It's better honestly, It did seem to go too fast near the end, but it left me wanting more. Maybe a "21st Century Breakdown" The Musical? I could see it, I personally think they can work with the story more, but with the material they had, which was a beautiful mess of an album, they did PERFECTLY.

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