nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 22, 2010
The work of Green Day, co-creators of the new Broadway musical American Idiot, is described this way in Wikipedia:
The majority of their song catalog is composed of overdriven guitar, fast, manic drums, and relatively high-treble bass. Most of their songs are fast-paced and under four minutes. [Billie Joe] Armstrong's lyrics commonly describe alienation, hysteria, girls, growing up, and the effects of doing drugs.
American Idiot is essentially 95 minutes of that: 28 Green Day songs, tied together with the meagerest of books (a couple of dozen lines of spoken text, almost all of it delivered by one character as narration to the audience), about adolescent rage, love, and inertia. It's a contemporary take on the rebel without a cause gambit (a cause—the alienation of a country under the Bush administration—is alluded to in the title song, which opens the show, but never returned to). I kept waiting for the redemptive finish that would explain why this long live music video is musical drama, but that never comes: this show is simply about what it is, a string of anthemic songs, alternately angry and sullen, spotlighting perceived powerlessness among youngsters who shouldn't need to feel that way.
There's a story. Johnny, Will, and Tunny are three kids who spend their days watching TV, drinking beer, picking up girls, and griping. Each explores a different path out of the rut he's in: Johnny goes to the Big City and becomes a heroin addict, Tunny goes off to war and loses a leg, and Will, having knocked up his girlfriend Heather, becomes a reluctant father. Unsurprisingly, none of these destinies proves fulfilling, and at the end of the show the three boys are reunited, back home, and essentially back where they started. There's a message here, but it's a depressing one.
Director Michael Mayer has dressed the story and score up with a relentless staging that owes its inspiration to many sources, from the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, and Rent to Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out and Des McAnuff's Tommy. Steven Hoggett's choreography feels mostly indebted to Michael Jackson music videos, as indeed does the entire short-attention-span ambience of the entire piece. I was hoping to experience something new in this new-generation rock opera, but American Idiot is instead a long string of cliches. There's diverting stuff to watch, and the music is almost always pretty good, but it's ultimately derivative, boring theatre.
The onstage band (nine players on keyboard, accordion, guitar, bass, violin, viola, cello, and percussion, with music direction by Carmel Dean) is the most valuable contributor to the proceedings. The sound by Brian Ronan is not as loud as you'd expect for punk rock, although the lyrics are unintelligible about half the time (not sure if that's Ronan's department or the individual singers'). The songs I enjoyed the most include the energetic opening "American Idiot," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," and "Wake Me Up When September Ends."
John Gallagher, Jr., Michael Esper, and Stark Sands play our heroes Johnny, Will, and Tunny, respectively. Gallagher is his usual effusive, lovable self. Esper's prodigious talents as musician and dancer are hardly used at all. Others in the 19-member ensemble who make strong impressions are Tony Vincent as St. Jimmy, the guy who gets Johnny hooked on drugs, and Leslie McDonel, the brassiest of the company's ill-used women.
Recognizing that Green Day's target demographic appears to be teenage boys, I was still bothered by the fact that American Idiot treats its women (who are vastly outnumbered by men in the cast) simply as so much window dressing: they're either the nagging girlfriend or the objectified sex partner. Particularly troubling is Tunny's dream in military hospital, in which a woman in a burkha descends from the sky like an angel and then removes her outer garment to reveal a hot pink harem costume underneath.
Fans of Green Day may well enjoy hearing familiar music from the stage of a Broadway theatre. Fans of musicals who don't intersect with that first group seem to me less likely to embrace American Idiot; its lack of well-formed characters, textured storyline and themes, and anything remotely innovative in the design and staging departments would seem to work against it becoming the next Rent or Spring Awakening.