American Idiot: St. James Theatre, 6/18/10

7 07 2010

I could easily reduce this review to a tweet: American Idiot was LOUD.

I struggled to process most of Michael Mayer’s new rock opera based on Green Day’s 2004 Grammy Award-winning punk album. Overamplified both aurally and visually, American Idiot yells for the audience’s attention. This “love child of RENT and Spring Awakeningoffers a hyper-energetic and multi-talented cast raging around an eclectic, multimedia playground for a nonstop 90 minutes. The most political, memorable moments occur when the rock concert is pulled back to an intimate acoustic level; unfortunately, these moments of genuine engagement are few and far between.

With a mash of video projections and scattered TV screens projecting the world in channel-jumping political turmoil, designer Darrel Maloney washes the relatively spare set in this appropriately bombarding aesthetic. The musical’s characters don’t want to be American idiots, but find themselves assaulted by impenetrable politics in the era of George W. Bush. The fragmentary narrative strands – a bum dad stuck in the suburbs, a druggie who travels to the city and back, and a young soldier wounded in Iraq – are primarily progressed by Mayer’s vibrant images and Steven Hoggett’s innovative choreography, rather than connective dialogue.

While some critics have complained about the lack of fully developed characters and narrative throughlines, I found some of Mayer’s imagistic direction to be even more piercingly memorable and effective than a traditional story – particularly for the soldier Tunny, portrayed by Stark Sands. Tunny is recruited by a sharp military official and his alluring red, white, and blue backup dancers in “Favorite Son.” War turns out not to be so sexy, however; after being wounded, Tunny and other soldiers in the hospital perform a softer, contemplative round reminiscent of Rent‘s “Will I?” With the soldiers strapped to their gurneys, “Before the Lobotomy” is an engaging respite from the relentless motion and raging noise of American Idiot. As the druggie Johnny, the pitch-perfect John Gallagher Jr. also has a few self-accompanied acoustic moments that linger in memory.

Tom Kitt’s arrangements of Green Day’s music translate to the stage beautifully, and the powerhouse ensemble has a seemingly endless well of energy for this vocally and physically demanding production. But the endless motion – like the blaring set and overamplified sound – builds to an assault on the audience’s senses. What’s more, American Idiot is a rock opera of endless ironies. This show strives to be politically engaged, but complains more than it engages. The representation of women is incredibly problematic; women are nothing more than sex objects – and most of them are nameless, like Watsername and The Extraordinary Girl. In a dream sequence, Princess Jasmine – dressed in a particularly Orientalist harem outfit – flies down from the rafters to seduce the soldier in Iraq. The theater also serves specialty drinks to take in to the performance (“St. Jimmy’s Wild Ride,” “Letterbomb,” and “A Shot of Novocaine”) that may put audience members in the same physical condition as the onstage characters: too wasted, or at least too much in the mind of pleasure, to actually process the politics. We really are American idiots, aren’t we?

American Idiot rages with great force and energy, but I am still not sure what it is raging about – or why the critics are raving. Spring Awakening, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Idiot … these are supposedly the musicals for the next generation. I must have been born in the wrong era. Nonetheless, I can appreciate American Idiot‘s attempt at creating an engaging new work: it certainly is pulling in and captivating many younger patrons, who will hopefully become regular theatergoers as a result.

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One response

15 07 2010
Jon

After seeing American Idiot on Broadway last week, I had many thoughts, and reading your review of the show helped crystallize them for me. It definitely was loud, it definitely was fast-paced, and although i found it highly entertaining, it definitely left something to be desired.

I think its shallowness, especially regarding the politics of the show, which you touch on in your review, can be attributed to the shallowness of the characters themselves. They know they don’t want to be American idiots, but they’re too lazy and/or stoned to truly become anything else. The extremely simplistic politics conveyed by the show can therefore reflect the simplistic views of the characters themselves. It is reflective of the characters entire generation to be restless, unhappy, and unwilling to do anything about it. I think the half-baked themes of the show reflect in their incompletion, the “longview”esque apathy of the characters and their generation, who are themselves living their lives too bored and lazy to fully hash out their ideas, ideals and beliefs.

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