BWW Reviews: AMERICAN IDIOT Rocks DC's National Theatre
If ever there was a contemporary musical about disaffected youth - whether today, yesterday or tomorrow - that rings true with emotion, it would probably be Green Day's American Idiot. Based on the band's 2004 concept album, the show took Berkeley and then Broadway by storm in 2009 and 2010, respectively, thanks to its popular appeal, relevancy, and perhaps because it was certainly different from the latest revival of some classic musical. Billie Joe Armstrong's affecting lyrics put to Green Day's pop-punk music, as well the book he wrote with director Michael Mayer, do well to capture the plight of three young men from idyllic American suburbia as they try to find meaning and direction in their lives beyond what they know even as the world around them is increasingly chaotic. While not completely original - there are shades of Hair in this musical, an abundance of predictable clichés about sex, drugs, and rock and roll and media saturation, and more than a few archetypal characters - and sometimes prone to meandering, it is powerful in that in speaks to youth in a language they're likely to understand as they too try to find their place in the messy world.
When brought to life with a cast of young singer-actors supported by stellar production elements, as is the case in the current non-union national tour making a stop at Washington, DC's National Theatre, the impact of the show is all the more powerful. This is one case where listening to the original Broadway cast recording or the original concept album is not even remotely comparable to what can be experienced live. Like, at all.
Raw and raucous youthful energy, as well as convincing portrayals of angst-ridden youth, are crucial to putting the mostly sung material over and this cast achieves that in spades.
As the three men seeking a change in their lives after they commiserate at an informal gathering, Jared Nepute (Jimmy), Casey O'Farrell (Will), and Dan Tracy (Tunny) are overwhelming convincing in their portrayal of restless and frustrated teenagers/20-somethings. While the trio and other members of the tight ensemble express their desire to rise above the status quo and be their own persons (the temper tantrum-like opener "American Idiot") one wonders if they would be able to keep up the energy they delivered throughout the 90-minute show. They do, for the record. At times their singing at this point in the show borders on 'screaming with tone' to the point that the individual lyrics bleed into one another and seemingly have no individual meaning, which I suppose is ok for this kind of number because we all get the gist. To be sure though, the three actors add dimension to their vocal choices as the show progresses and prove capable of handling multiple musical styles.
As Tunny, Will, and Jimmy find themselves in different predicaments as they go their separate ways, each actor does well to highlight the conflicted emotions that the changes bring - all of which are life-altering. Of the three, Nepute has the most to do and rises to the occasion. An accomplished singer, actor, and guitarist, one can feel his pain as he immersed himself into the drug culture giving rise to his alter-ego St. Jimmy (an enormously convincing Carson Higgins with vocal range and stage presence to spare). Whether in the show's numerous high-energy rock numbers or the more contemplative ones ("When It's Time"), he delivers an honest performance that still featured soaring vocals. As Will struggles with his girlfriend Heather's (Mariah MacFarlane) unplanned pregnancy/child, O'Farrell delivers an emotionally poignant performance featuring strong vocals on the more contemplative numbers ("Give Me Novacaine") and the sardonic and biting "Nobody Likes You." Tracy, while not quite having the vocal firepower of his counterparts, delivers a heartfelt as the young man who chooses military service as a form of escape. Even as he's tasked to take part in scenes that are quintessential "young man goes to war and gets injured" that offer little that's new book-wise, he is overwhelmingly convincing.
The women of the cast make the most of their supporting roles. MacFarlane and Olivia Puckett (Whatsername, a girl Johnny meets in his drug/sex-induced haze) prove to be solid technical singers, but they match that up with entirely authentic acting performances as the girls in relationships who get the short end of the stick. I found Puckett's rendition of "Letterbomb" to be particularly memorable thanks to her strong movement, singing, and expression. In a smaller ensemble role, Josephine Spada makes an impression in minutes on "Too Much Too Soon," a biting commentary on the plight of our young protagonists. Strong vocal control matched with an enviable vocal range and stage presence, she makes her moment in the spotlight count.
The male members of the ensemble, at least on the night I attended the show, didn't quite have the solid voices the women had. However, it's possible that some of the painful singing on "Before the Lobotomy" was due to them not being able to hear themselves. Either way, they brought the emotion as wounded soldiers.
Production element-wise, the national tour is more or less comparable to what was found in the Broadway production. A flying sequence has been cut, but the impressive lighting design (Kevin Adams), video design/projections (Darrel Maloney), and punk culture-infused and multi-purpose sets (Christine Jones) are still in place. They continue to be, in my mind, a very solid example of the production elements really fitting the show like a glove - never seeming superfluous but contributing well to the energy and rawness at play. One has to also give credit to Acme Sound Partners. While the show is, not surprisingly, really loud, every lyric is wonderfully audible and can be understood with ease. The same cannot be said of many rock musicals I've witnessed in DC and on Broadway.
Although Steven Hoggett's choreography gets a little tedious - particularly the constant lunging forward in a way that's reminiscent of Bill T. Jones' choreography in Spring Awakening - it is athletic, crisp, and suits the mood of each of the characters. Every member of the hard-working ensemble delivers it in a polished way, yet with seemingly reckless abandon. Likewise, though I was disappointed that there were no live strings in the small band - let me just say, I love that component of Tom Kitt's orchestrations and the Broadway show itself - the five piece rhythm section rocked the historic house like pros from onstage. A mishap here or there - such as was the case on opening night - can be forgiven because they certainly sold the music and did it justice.
American Idiot, in this touring production, is a definitive crowd pleaser and you can't ask for much more than that.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
American Idiot plays at the National Theatre - 1321 Pennsylvania Ave, NW in Washington, DC - through February 23, 2014. For tickets, visit the box office, purchase them by phone (1-800-514-3849) or online.