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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

American Idiot
City Lights Theater Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's reviews of Schooled and Confederates


The Cast
Photo by Susan Mah Photography
Scattered across the stage's walls, multiple TV screens fill with impending war announcements by serious heads of state and the all-knowing media's blah-blah-blah reactions. The same images dominate the flipped channels of three young men barely out of their teens who sit glued to their sets, bored and restless in their small hometown homes. Their pent-up frustration explodes as they and a huge gang of youths take to the the streets and in sudden unison begin pumping fists in air, stomping in exaggerated steps and kicks, bobbing heads high and low with fierce intensity. And in time, this trio of pals and their stage full of companions sing with anger, determination, and even exhilaration,

Don't want to be an American idiot,
One nation controlled by the media.
Information age of hysteria.
It's calling out to idiot America.

And while this opening number was originally written by Billie Joe Armstrong (lyrics) and his punk rock band Green Day (music) as a 2004 reaction to a post-9/11 world, the opening scene of their musical American Idiot feels very contemporary in the many ways it captures the mounting frustration and bitterness of many millennials with the world given to them. City Lights Theater Company revives the Oakland band's album-turned-musical that premiered in 2009 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before heading in 2010 to Broadway and then London, garnering multiple awards in each city. The current rendition brings the musical's high-energy choreography, scenes of raw emotions, pounding rock beats, and mesmerizing ballads to a small, intimate stage full to its brink with twenty-one highly talented young actors. The result is a new look at this locally initiated musical and an American Idiot that feels fresh and timed for today's headlines.

Johnny, Will, and Tunny are the three buds who decide that they have had it with there hometown and the crap going on in the world at large and are ready to head to the big city to escape it all. But their boisterous bravado hits some bumps even before their journey begins. Will discovers he has a child on the way with his girlfriend Heather and remains behind, stationing himself on his same old couch, staring at his television, and imbibing in many cans of beer and hits from his bong. Tunny, who goes to the dark but exciting metropolis with Johnny, does not find nirvana and instead is lured by one of Uncle Sam's recruiters to join the army and head to the Middle East. Only Johnny remains to revel in the fun and thrills of the big city; but like many before him, he falls prey to the streets' drugs of the day as his desperate avenues to a sought-after, inner peace.

The songs of Green Day's original concept album, also entitled American Idiot, provide a somewhat discernible storyline that in the musical version is slightly supported by a sparse book (Billie Joe Armstrong). The result is largely a concert and stage show that captures the emotional gist of the three men's stories but misses much development about the characters themselves and their motivations for the choices they make.

But as a series of musical numbers that thread a loose story of three disaffected youth who take separate paths to discover who they are, where they might find love, and what their paths are to more meaningful lives, City Lights' American Idiot is a winner, thanks to many knock-out performances by both soloists and the cast at large. Heading that list is Joey Pisacane as Johnny, whose eyes outlined in black often stare with enough piercing force to break the fourth wall into shattered pieces. The clarity of his voice trumpets and explodes with fiery fury in numbers like "Holiday." His real triumphs are when he periodically comes center stage, just him and his guitar, to sing softly in self-reflective and confessional tones words like, "The words get trapped in my mind, I'm sorry I don't take the time to feel the way I do ... So tell me when it's time to say I love you" ("When It's Time").

Johnny gives his heart and body to a girl looking out a tenement window, Whatsername. As that love interest, Danielle Mendoza brings hypnotic looks and voice to join Johnny in a contemplative duet, "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," establishing that she, like Joey Pisacane, knows how to reach deep to render notes of raw emotion. She continues to make every note count in a later number when Wahtsername decides to leave the now-drug-laced Johnny. In "Letter Bomb," she is joined by the women of the company in delivering powerfully punctuated lines like "It's not over before it's too late" while they all dance in moves full of the song's regret and resolve.

Stuck on his hometown couch, Will searches relief in between his drinking and drugging from the demons in his own mind. With acoustic guitar in hand, Tarif Pappu pleads in a voice that grips at heartstrings, "Take away the sensation inside ... I can't take this feeling anymore" ("Give Me Novacaine" in which he is eventually joined by Tunny and company). He joins with Johnny and others in another number of solitude voices ("Wake Me Up When September Ends") that ends with beautiful, a cappella harmonies. As Will, Tarif Pappu underplays in just the right ways the guy paralyzed by his own inaction and sings with a soulful voice that can turn it up to full volume just when the emotions are truly ready to pop.

One of the best performances of the evening in voice and manner comes from Melissa Baxter as Will's girlfriend and mother to his child, Heather. Baxter establishes in "Dearly Beloved" that her clear, pitch-perfect voice will deliver the lyrics and message effortlessly and further ensures that the tension of this failed relationship will be beautifully but tragically communicated in a moving duet with Pappu, "Too Much Too Soon."

Some voices that show moments of real promise are unfortunately time and again over-powered by a band (especially its drums) that drowns out entirely the sung lyrics and intended messages. Such is the case for many of Tunny's contributions throughout the evening (played by Andrew Erwin) as well as the evil-eyed, alter ego of Johnny, St. Jimmy (Sean Okuniewicz). Both of them either do not have the power or are not given the proper miking to reign over the much-too-loud pounding that is supposed to accompany them, not fight with them. Musical director Samuel Cisneros hits the mark in so many ways in how he has directed this large cast in their music but somehow has missed the balance needed to allow some of the numbers to shine forth to their fullest.

Director Jeffrey Bracco ensures the ninety minutes fly by through a series of nonstop scenes that shift seamlessly from one to the next. Rip-roaring, seat-jarring rock numbers alternate at just the right moments with softer, acoustic solos that allow a peek into characters' souls and searching. Choreographer Christine Herrera has whipped together multiple ways to show off the talents of a large cast of roaming men and women; those numbers are often stunning in their precision, imagination, and athleticism. Ron Gasparinetti's set design is both sparse in pieces and dense in levels and depth. It is aided by an incredible lighting design by Nick Kumamoto that focuses us suddenly on isolated drug or sexual trysts, draws us into murky shadows of background gatherings, or brings us into fully staged street scenes of bodies pumping and pulsing. Pulling it all together are the costumes by Anna Chase that tell in their own ways the everyday lives of the characters, both individually and in mass—be those lives full of drugs, sex, war, isolation, or searching for self.

Onto the stage of City Lights Theater Company bursts a vigorous, heart-pumping, invigorating American Idiot, with a cast that gives and gives and gives some more. Even if the story or some of the characters' motivations are not totally clear to any audience member not already fully versed in Green Day music and lyrics, this cast, director, and production team ensure the overall punk-flowing messages are there for the easy taking.

American Idiot continues through August 21, 2016, at at City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose. Tickets are available online at cltc.org or by calling 408-295-4200 Monday - Friday, 1-5 p.m.


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