BWW Reviews: Fantastic Performers Can't Overcome AMERICAN IDIOT's Banal Direction and Concept
Don't let the scattered empty seats in Bass Concert Hall fool you. American Idiot is quite possibly the biggest sell-out show in history. Billie Joe Armstrong and Co., I hope the millions you've earned by pimping out one of the greatest albums of a generation made it all worth it, and I hope it didn't hurt to see your greatest achievement robbed of all its emotion and power. Even Bono was able to contribute to musical theater while maintaining more integrity.
While Green Day's 2004 album American Idiot doesn't scream to be made into a musical as much as The Who's Tommy did several decades prior, the potential is certainly there. Unfortunately for fans of both Green Day and musicals, myself included, American Idiot is a gigantic disappointment. The problems of the misguided musical begin with its relationship with a character driven plot. It knows it needs it but isn't sure what to do with it, much like how the show's young characters would view a 401k. In order to be a Green Day musical with ticket prices rivaling a Green Day concert, American Idiot needs to differentiate itself by (wait for it) being a musical complete with at least the basic conventions of the genre. This point is completely lost on book writer Billie Joe Armstrong and co-book writer/director Michael Mayer. To call the plot "light" would be an understatement. It's thin, clichéd, and near non-existent. Some plot points are derivative of better musicals like Rent and Spring Awakening. Characters are clearly ripped off from either of the aforementioned shows, and even the sets by Christine Jones (who also designed Spring Awakening's set) and costumes by Andrea Lauer look like Rent retread. All in all, this Rent for (American) idiots suggests that the creators are more prone to plagiarism than Shia LaBeouf.
American Idiot follows the story of
Mark Roger Johnny, an angst ridden junkie and our guide who precludes each scene by reciting the date (No, we never get to December 24th, 9pm, Eastern Standard Time). Early on and for no apparent reason, Johnny abandons his friends Melchior Will and Moritz Tunny (by the way, the only way we know that they're friends is that they call each other "douchebag" and "c**ksucker" since all young men treat everyone, even people they like, with complete disrespect). Johnny leaves for Santa Fe some unknown city, falls for a fellow junkie named Mimi Whatshername. Left behind in the suburbs, Will impregnates his girlfriend Wendla Heather, but instead of being a responsible parent, he sits on the couch and gets stoned all day because parenthood, ew, right? Meanwhile, Tunny enlists in the army (the only original plot point not copied from Rent or Spring Awakening).
The characters are just as faintly outlined as the plot. While each has a story (I'm using that term extremely loosely), none have any color, heart, or personality. The only one who does is Johnny (Jared Nepute), and his smart-ass disposition makes the character difficult to like. As for the rest, none elicit any emotional response, and when the audience doesn't connect to a character going to war or another becoming a teenage mom, there's a major problem.
The underdeveloped characters are a complete disservice to the incredibly talented cast. The ensemble has explosive energy, the leads all have incredible voices, and the on-stage band is amazing. Musically, this show is perfection. Jared Nepute gives Johnny a rocker look and sound. As Heather, understudy Alison Morooney has a pleasant and soothing but powerful voice. Casey O'Farrell's soft, understated, and controlled tenor allows the character of Will to provide a few moments of contrast to the otherwise earsplitting punk rock, and as St. Jimmy (is he supposed to be Johnny's dealer? A puppet master? Do I care?), understudy Andrew Humann is a dead ringer for Billie Joe Armstrong in look, sound, and stage presence. If only the characters were allowed to do something more than act angsty and constipated.
In addition to his failure as a book writer, Michael Mayer fails as director by refusing to add any nuance to his production. There are no shifts in tone. It's just a 90 minute screamfest, and if I want to watch angry people scream for 90 minutes, I'd watch a couple programs on Fox News. He also seems afraid to allow any of his characters to occupy the stage alone, a major flaw when your point (I think) is that youth can be so isolating. One moment, the haunting ode to loneliness "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" starts as a solo but ends in a big full-company crescendo, a choice which completely undermines the point of the song. And throughout, Mayer throws in heavy doses of spectacle and visuals (confetti, video screens, rock concert lighting, a flying grocery cart) to assault the eyes in an attempt to distract from his massive ineptness as director.
Steven Hoggett's choreography isn't any better. It's a continuous repetition of drunken stumbles, arm spasms, air punches, and headbanging. Some moments are so sloppy that they look as if they weren't choreographed at all, while others are so over-choreographed that they come off comical. A sex scene where each thrust is tied to the beat of the music and a balletic sequence in which Johnny and his druggie girlfriend get tangled in their tourniquet are the two biggest offenders.
Perhaps more egregious than the laundry list of other problems is the production's lack of purpose. Maybe the show, like Green Day, wants to be anti-establishment and non-conformist, and the best way to do so is to have no purpose at all because purpose is an establishment, elitist principle. Nah, that's too smart for this show. It wants to have a point and purpose, but it greatly misses the mark. I assume the main points of this colossal mess are that drugs suck, being young sucks, war sucks, and your first job will suck. What in that "profound" social commentary is new, exciting, or shocking? And more importantly, why am I supposed to give a crap about these characters or their stories? It's 2014. We're still in a war. We're still in an economic downturn. Unemployment is still high. Life isn't exactly rosy right now. Our world is a mess, and we all have our own problems, so why am I supposed to care about this bland assortment of addicts and couch potatoes whose woe is (with the exceptions of war veteran Tunny and young mom Heather) of their own design?
Despite its attempts at an anti-establishment and non-conformist message, American Idiot becomes exactly what it's rebelling against. It's an over produced, unintelligent spectacle which favors fluff over substance in its misguided quest for mass appeal.
Billie Joe, do you know the enemy?
Note: For mature audiences only.
Running time: Approximately 95 minutes, no intermission.
AMERICAN IDIOT plays the Bass Concert Hall at 2350 Robert Dedman Dr, Austin 78712 now thru January 19th. Performances are Wednesday - Saturday at 8pm with additional performances on Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 1pm and 7pm. Tickets are $35-$85. For tickets and information, visit http://austin.broadway.com.