BWW Reviews: Green Day's AMERICAN IDIOT Musical Rocks Costa Mesa
While watching the super-charged, though slightly frustrating Tony-nominated alt-rock musical AMERICAN IDIOT—whose national touring company recently spent a brief week at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Orange County, CA—one can't help but feel genuinely entertained by the spectacle of it all, yet many (myself among them) may find themselves wondering: well, we know we're watching something awesome... but WTF is actually happening?
It's a tricky proposition when a show asks its audience to do some legwork beforehand. In essence a half-formed yet energetically well-intentioned musical, the stage adaptation of pop-punk band Green Day's AMERICAN IDIOT—for all its mesmerizing visuals and defiantly-tinged music—to a certain extent, still requires a few things of its audience in order for them to truly enjoy the show as a musical theater piece.
First, you better have an appreciation for "big picture" metaphorical themes when you walk in, rather than demanding, say, an actual fleshed-out story to carry the show. And, second, you may want to brush up on the band's lyrics, because as passionately belted as these songs were, their comprehension in regards to the so-called plot's forward momentum—particularly the fast-paced punk rock shout-fests in this mostly sung-through musical—will confound even those with perfect hearing.
Lucky for me, I'm a bit more flexible when it comes to the former and a bit more forgiving with the latter. Non-existent storylines—especially in half-assed jukebox musicals—often annoy me. But, WOW me enough with amazing live performances and truly great music, and I'm more likely to excuse its narrative flaws and grow to like a show—and start considering it more as a really well-acted concert instead.
In a way, one has to treat something like that as if it was more like a musical revue rather than a typical book musical. Just last month, this very same theater asked for a similar kind of flexibility from its audience with its presentation of the musically rich—but narratively-weak—MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET. Top-notch cast singing top-notch music? Check! Does it have an adequate enough plot to envelope the songs? Meh...maybe. But did I enjoy the show overall, though? Sure!
This is perhaps the most logical explanation as to what transpired for me and many others in the audience seeing AMERICAN IDIOT for the first time. While I certainly didn't think the show merited me walking out altogether (as a noticeable few did during a recent performance), the musical was a genuinely entertaining stage show—but mostly as a visually-enhanced showcase for its rousing musical score and the staggeringly talented cast tasked to perform it.
It was like watching a really cool, acted-out rock concert. And on top of that, having the show's band on-stage dispersed within the set and actors completed the illusion.
However, the musical's jumbled "narrative"—a loud hodge-podge of generalized pseudo-deep-philosophical ideas mixed with a few witty, profanity-laced one-liners, and lots of head-scratching tangents—felt unfocused and tried, perhaps, entirely too hard to appear more psychologically poignant than it actually is. Fortunately, the show did a pretty nifty job of distracting you from this by constantly pumping out an endless barrage of visual stimulants surrounding its truly kick-ass Green Day soundtrack; and so much so that even the most A.D.D.-addled theatergoer couldn't help but sit up and be lulled into submission.
Using songs culled from Green Day's critically-acclaimed concept album of the same name, as well as a few other songs from various Green Day albums that lent an air of pop culture familiarity to the show, AMERICAN IDIOT rushes through the current frustrated states of three wild and crazy buddies: Will (Jake Epstein), Tunny (Scott J. Campbell), and Johnny (a superb Van Hughes, reprising a role he previously played in the Broadway production). Restlessly dealing with the blows of suburban life in "Jingletown, USA," the three devise a plan to seek brighter futures in the big city—hoping that the relocation will somehow improve their seemingly goal-less, meaningless lives.
Energized by beer and rage, they agree to escape away together, armed with bus tickets Johnny had secured from stolen, er, rather, borrowed funds. But before they leave, Will's girlfriend Heather (Leslie McDonel) has some news: she's pregnant! Feeling guilty, Will agrees to stay behind for her while Tunny, Johnny, and the rest of their gang depart for the city.
As expected, urban life presents unfortunate consequences. Unable to cope with life in the big city, Tunny retreats to oversleeping in the pair's shared dwelling. Out of nowhere, though, a flashy TV infomercial convinces him to enlist in the army. There, Tunny faces the harshness of war first-hand and is severely injured in the line of duty.
Now on his own, Johnny becomes delusional and conjures up—a lá Fight Club—an uninhibited imaginary alter ego he calls "St. Jimmy" (the scream-tastic Joshua Kobak), who coaxes Johnny into a non-stop sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll lifestyle. Johnny also becomes intrigued by a beautiful stranger he calls "Whatsername" (the riveting Gabrielle McClinton).
Meanwhile, back at home, Will is slowly decaying inside, drowning himself in pot and beers awaiting the birth of his and Heather's baby, hoping for some kind of relief.
A musicalized, rock-opera-style examination of the angst-fueled, media-saturated lives of suburban youths fed up with societal norms and expectations, AMERICAN IDIOT tries its best to cram as much as possible the clichéd, jaded behavior all young people supposedly have into every nook and cranny of the show's intermission-less 95 minutes; all the while, weaving Green Day's incredible tunes in and out—which is, frankly, the real draw of this show.
It's really too bad because on paper—particularly on sheet music—turning AMERICAN IDIOT into a fully-realized stage musical seems like an inspired idea. But the execution of the show's "narrative" uses such overly-broad strokes that most times the audience has to basically paint-in the details themselves. It's just as well since we're so busy being distracted by the sights and sounds booming loudly across the stage anyway.
The subject matter is, of course, nothing new or revolutionary, and certainly not in the world of musical theater. In fact, many will probably notice—as I did—that the show contains (probably) accidental traces of DNA from such early rock-and-youth-quakes like HAIR, TOMMY, RENT, BARE, and, yes, SPRING AWAKENING.
Speaking of the latter show, AMERICAN IDIOT itself just happens to feature a book co-written by this show's director Michael Mayer. Aside from directing the riveting pilot for the NBC musical series Smash, Mayer also directed the off-Broadway and Broadway productions of SPRING AWAKENING (Green Day's own frontman Billie Joe Armstrong co-wrote the book with Mayer). Coincidence? Perhaps.
The end results are a bit of a, well, mixed bag, as one might expect. For every stirring showpiece (the powerful opening title track; the haunting harmonies in "21 Guns") and beautiful interludes (the hypnotic aerial pas-de-deux in "Extraordinary Girl;" the quiet storm of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "Give Me Novacaine") we get lots of peculiar storytelling head-scratchers that blatantly serve nothing more than just filler for the next great Green Day song.
Sure, you can argue that such topsy-turvy storytelling mirrors the wildly erratic mind of disenfranchised youth. But, c'mon... that's a total cop-out.
Thank goodness all this posturing is delivered with such palpable gusto by an army of really amazing, gifted musical theater performers—every single one of whom truly giving it their all on stage. Each pulsating, lyrically-choreographed move, each emotionally-charged facial expression, and every beautifully-sung note feels utterly purposeful and vividly conveyed by this wonderful song-and-dance troupe. Each and every cast member—moonlighting as rock stars—is so intensely committed to the work that the show's story flaws melt away to reveal in its deeper foundations a fantastic, well-performed stage concert.
This is most especially evident in the show's leads, despite having not-so-well-developed characters. Hughes—a handsome, engrossingly watchable charmer that's as innocently naive as he is dangerously sexy—creates a likable persona in the otherwise downtrodden Johnny. As Will, Epstein—last seen on this very stage as Melchior Gabor in, yep, SPRING AWAKENING—embodies his character with a believable pathos and hopelessness that truly resonates. And as Tunny, swoon-worthy Campbell deservedly elicits empathy as an injured war vet. And along with his wire-work partner Nicci Classpell as the "Extraordinary Girl," the pair provide an unexpected, moving surprise high above the stage floor.
Aside from the music, of course, kudos must also be bestowed on the show's visual purveyors: to choreographer Steven Hoggett for some of the most interesting movements I've seen in a show in a long while; and to Tony winner Christine Jones for her stunning urban-chic scenic design, Kevin Adams for his lighting design, and Darrel Maloney for designing the show's videos and projections. These artists provided plenty of eye candy.
More rock concert than your typical Broadway musical, AMERICAN IDIOT succeeds not as a complete musical stage play but rather as an interesting hybrid of a rambunctious pop show with visual poetry on over-dramatic steroids. While the show treats its narrative with the same aimlessness as its bummed-out characters would, the audience does, well, get WTF is going on. It certainly helps that the musical is so damn mesmerizing to watch—as performed by its infectious, youthful cast that leap and (rebel) yell Green Day's rousing, melodic songs—that one can't help but just absorb its visual and auditory splendors.
In that sense, AMERICAN IDIOT, at least for me amounted to being a really well-crafted long-form music video performed live. And you know what? Sometimes I really, really like sitting through those.
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Photos from the National Tour of AMERICAN IDIOT by Doug Hamilton. From top: Will (Jake Epstein) longs for relief; Johnny (Van Hughes, left) explores his wild side with "St. Jimmy" (Joshua Kobak); "Whatsername" (Gabrielle McClinton) gets her say; Johnny and Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) reflect on their life paths.
Performances of the National Tour of AMERICAN IDIOT at The Segerstrom Center for the Arts concluded on June 3. The show continues in Seattle, WA June 5 -10 and San Francisco, CA June 12 - July 8.
For additional information on AMERICAN IDIOT, visit americanidiotthemusical.com