Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 20, 2010
American Idiot Music by Green Day. Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong. Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer. Director Michael Mayer. Choreographer Steven Hoggett. Musical Supervision, Arrangements, and Orchestrations Tom Kitt. Scenic design by Christine Jones. Costume design by Andrea Lauer. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Video/projection design by Darrel Maloney. Cast: John Gallagher Jr., Stark Sands, Michael Esper, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Christina Sajous, Mary Faber, and Tony Vincent, with Declan Bennett, Andrew Call, Gerard Canonico, Miguel Cervantes, Joshua Henry, Van Hughes, Brian Charles Johnson, Joshua Kobak, Lorin Latarro, Omar Lopez-Cepero, Leslie McDonel, Chase Peacock, Theo Stockman, Ben Thompson, Alysha Umphress, Aspen Vincent, Libby Winters.
If that's the way you roll, or if you're just a die-hard fan of the band Green Day, whose 2004 album fuels (and names) this show, chances are you'll be smitten with the whole of this stage production. If you're one of those personal-responsibility, suck-it-up-and-deal types, don't expect to be converted by the dull whine it, and its charmless leading man, emits. But even skeptics about the prevailing anti-establishment worldview will be flummoxed in their attempts to resist this evening on the basis of its stagecraft. The writing may be too grounded in defeatism to soar, but the staging itself is as electric as it comes today.
It's by Michael Mayer, who with Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong conceived the show and wrote its central scenario. (Playbill credits notwithstanding, it's not a "book.") The world he's conceived, which seemed real until just recently, is one under the thumb of George W. Bush and, worse yet, the apathy it believes he instilled in everyone under the age of 40. Screens, whether on televisions, computers, or cell phones, are everywhere, and they all lie. Dance is less a manner of exuberant expression than a fetid responsibility, conveying not possession of or desire for power, confidence, or sex, but rather the desolation that they're all pointless. Life is an amplifier with the volume knob jammed at 10, and ear plugs have gone extinct.
In other words, with American Idiot Mayer accomplishes what he attempted (and failed) with Spring Awakening, because he better marshals the links and the repudiations between the subject matter and the text itself. So elaborately have he and choreographer Steven Hoggett striven to give life to the dead — and, when necessary, death to the living — that they have created in their work precisely what the score and text cannot: theatricality.
Green Day's breakthrough album may be many things — pungent, absorbing, infuriating — but dramatic it is not. Progressing through 13 songs of anger and angst, it's a kaleidoscope of its era's liberalism, not a story. Its two "characters," Jesus of Suburbia and St. Jimmy, are opposing forces in imagination only—ultimately, they speak for the same crowds, with the same voice. It's Mayer and Armstrong's greatest accomplishment that they've distilled that for the stage into individual narratives that explore the world on fire from three separate angles, all of which originate in suburban hell.
The strongest and most central of these is that of Johnny (John Gallagher, Jr.), who packs his guitar and screams off for the big city, where he's mesmerized by a woman (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and entranced by a drug dealer (St. Jimmy, played by Tony Vincent), and led to lose them both, as well as himself and his dreams. His friend, Tunny (Stark Sands), accompanies him initially but bows out to join the military and meet his inner hero on the battlefields of the Middle East — but wounds beget wounds, and for him permanent scars are inevitable. Last is Will (Michael Esper), who also longs for escape but is tied down, and tied up by his pregnant girlfriend (Mary Faber).
Meaning isn't subjective to any of them, of course — it's nonexistent. And the harder they search for it, the further away from it they get. Watching their constant withdrawal, with the music always throbbing behind and beneath them, is nearly as visceral an experience as musicals achieve today. Significant soul is provided by arranger and orchestrator Tom Kitt (of Next to Normal and High Fidelity), who's softened a lot of the accompaniment's hardest edges. Though his efforts are hampered by sound designer Brian Ronan — who makes no obvious attempts to achieve depth of sound, only brain-splitting loudness — he's instrumental in extracting genuine, complex feelings from songs that want and deliver only platitudes.
As are Esper and Sands. Gifted young actors better known for their nonmusical roles (the former The Four of Us and subUrbia, the latter the superb 2007 Broadway revival of Journey's End), they attack their tasks with supreme confidence and uncover every nuance of these young men's love, hate, and anguish. Esper transforms Will's increasingly vacant stares and words unsettling waypoints along his journey to psychological abandonment, threading a captivating thread of resentment throughout that rejects your sympathy. Sands is even more virtuosic, embodying Tunny's vanity, valor, and delusion completely and cruelly as he chronicles the tumble and possible redemption of a hot spirit going cold.
But nearly everyone succeeds, from Faber, who's a lively, animatronic warden as a well-intended woman in her own bad situation; to Jones, who's so arresting as the shimmering embodiment of sensuality in an underworld society that neither knows nor cares what to do with it, and Christina Sajous as Tunny's own emotional muse; to Vincent, creepily dynamic as the very engine of street temptation.
In his own universe, however, is Gallagher. He takes his unique brand of overacting (which inexplicably earned him a Tony for Spring Awakening) to astonishing and embarrassing new heights, making mincemeat of the internal confliction that's supposed to drive Johnny from despair to drugs and back again. He overenunciates every word, overarticulates every action (no one, but no one, plays a guitar as fake-emphatically as he does here), and grossly underrepresents anything that could be mistaken for subtlety or introspection. Johnny may view the world as an ugly place, but can still get lost in it — Gallagher is just pounding on the windows, his transparently affected rage exactly the excess of artifice the show attacks.
Even with Gallagher thrashing around at its center, American Idiot satisfies in spite of all that's working against it — including the passage of time (and a presidency) that's rendered much of its discontent obsolete. Yet the establishment of a new government and its new outlook on America and its future has not been a universal salve, so the young's quest for absolution and understanding continues. Whether this will be their musical remains to be seen. That it otherwise seems to be everyone's, in spite of being no real musical at all, is the kind of maddening, exciting contradiction only the theatre can engender.