Review: American Idiot at the Buell, 3/6/12
Scott J. Campbell as Tunny (from left), Van Hughes as Johnny and Jake Epstein as Will in American Idiot.
The first murmurs of canned news clips and talking heads began before the house lights went down and the curtain went up on the Buell stage last night. They started as hints and whispers, really -- the drone of a news anchor detailing nuclear arms tests in North Korea in 2006; the words of George W. Bush filtered through a bullhorn as he stood atop the rubble at Ground Zero on September 14, 2001; a detached voice spelling out the devastation of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
The clips were fitting cues for the explosive guitar chords, defiant lyrics and frenetic light shows that opened Green Day's American Idiot, a show strongly rooted in the angst, disillusionment and despair of 21st century America. That context was clear from the first strains of "American Idiot," the title track and opening number that set out the thematic boundaries to come.
Navigating a set consisting of an intricate latticework of video screens and industrial railings, the ensemble belted out lyrics decrying the "subliminal mind fuck" of the "new media." Images of talk shows, TV personalities and news broadcasts from the early 2000s filled the screen -- the tune ends with an inverted American flag beamed on all of the screens. That short song would set out the show's heart and context immediately, aggressively and unrelentingly.
The musical, featuring a soundtrack composed largely of songs from Green Day's 2004 album of the same name, defied too many stage conventions to count. Its narrative structure, choreography and scoring aligned more closely with the feel of a rock concert, a dynamic that also came in the constant stream of music and marked absence of dialogue. It was a mix of an arena rock show and a piece of subversive theater, a fusion of compelling drama and disorienting experimentation.
But a sense of energy and movement was the real constant here. Propelled by a five-member rock ensemble and a cello accompaniment for the slower tunes, the cast invested the score with the perfect amount of defiance and abandon. The choreography was primal and kinetic, with dancers lashing out arms, kicking out legs and swiveling their heads with energy worthy of a mosh pit. The narrative came in short bursts, in pop-song-sized segments that lent the story the feel of a good rock album.
The cast made that format work. Principal actors played heartfelt and affecting renditions of tunes on acoustic guitars. Dancers made the steps feel more like barely contained showings of rage than carefully coordinated routines. The entire cast appeared on stage with acoustic guitars for an encore performance of "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)."
Such touches made the chaotic feel and frenetic structure of the show work; it put it on par with rock-opera staples like the Who's Tommy and, less predictably, Hair. It may not have been easy to follow the details of the story with the show's in-your-face velocity, but its spirit was hard to miss.
Set in the anonymous American town of Jingletown in "the recent past," the show follows three male protagonists disenchanted and disillusioned with the trappings of modern American culture. Johnny (Van Hughes), Will (Jake Epstein) and Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) start out as young friends without direction, drinking beers and smoking cigarettes in a generic suburban basement. Johnny serves as the show's official narrator, breaking the action into a definite chronology through short asides.
The three detail their lifestyle in "Jesus of Suburbia": untold afternoons spent in their parents' basement, trips to the 7-Eleven to buy beer -- a disaffected, semi-tragic chorus of suburbia in the 21st century. With this uninspired routine as their backdrop, the friends start to split off in different directions. Johnny and Tunny decide to abandon the comfort of suburban routine for the adventure of the big city, a voyage sketched out in ensemble versions of "Holiday" and a group dance number on a colossal moving bus. Will decides to stay in the safe confines of the suburban basement, joined by his pregnant girlfriend Heather (Leslie McDonel) who eventually tires of the situation and abandons him.
For Johnny and Tunny, the dream of a new life in the city quickly soils under the weight of reality. Before launching into an acoustic version of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" backed by the band, Johnny announces in a letter to Will (constantly seen on the basement couch at the side of the stage) that Tunny is always in bed, that he's bowing to the pressures of independence. "Broken Dreams" morphs into "Favorite Son," a tune that starts as a general protest about the nature of American celebrity.
In "Are We the Waiting?" Tunny's enlisted into the military. Stripped down to his underwear and his Black Flag tattoos, Tunny makes a quick transformation. In a scene reminiscent of the military imagery from Hair, he exits the stage accompanied by a chorus of new soldiers, a group off to a suspect conflict with motivation that is, at best, ambivalent. Tunny returns from a tour in an unspecified conflict, hooked up to an IV in a hospital bed and missing a leg.
"What the fuck? Tunny's dream turned red, white and blue," Johnny declares before the beginning of "St. Jimmy," a tune that introduces Joshua Kobak as St. Jimmy, the protagonist's drug dealer. Sporting a tousled hairdo and primo punk duds, St. Jimmy tosses glitter across the stage and offers escape. On a heroin-fueled frenzy, Johnny meets Whatsername (Gabrielle McClinton), a girl who inspires some of the score's more tender and affecting moments. In between drug-fueled moments of abandon, Johnny spells out the ballad "When It's Time" on the acoustic guitar. The performance is a moment of pure musicianship by Van Hughes.
That moment of tenderness doesn't last. Johnny has picked up demons too strong to easily put down; in a twisted ballet realized with heroin needles and tubes, he breaks from Whatsername and abandons the possibility of love in "Letterbomb." He nears the edge of oblivion in "Wake Me Up When September Ends," seeks redemption in sobriety and routine in "Homecoming" and reunites with his friends in suburban Jingletown by the end of "We're Coming Home Again." A poignant tone of regret for the girl he lost is the only sense of resolution for Johnny, who, along with the rest of the ensemble, declares, "I am an idiot" before the curtain falls.
All of these narrative strains came at a dizzying pace in the ninety-minute show. The characters came through in the lyrics of Billy Joe Armstrong, the speedy punk anthems and the balladry of Green Day. At its heart, the rock musical was more punk than theater, more defiance than nuance. Still, the themes of drug abuse, military scars and broken families fit the stark, driving score spelled out by musical director and keyboardist Jared Stein. Rooted in modern senselessness and tragedy, driven by a drained and depressing popular culture, the stories of three idiots and their screw-ups seemed to carry a deeper resonance.
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