BWW Review: AMERICAN IDIOT at Center Stage Theater
The punk rock musical American Idiot, now on stage at Center Stage, gives Green Day fans an opportunity to immerse themselves into the titular album through dance, imagery, and, of course, music. American Idiot does not tell a story so much as it performs the gesture of punk rock: a clench-fisted rebellion against the banality of American society and culture.
When the chorus sings, America is "one nation controlled by the media/Information Age of hysteria," one winces at the currency of a lyric written over a decade ago. The show does not shy away from the relevance of its themes to life in Trump's America and director Joanna Syiek's staging points to contemporary politics, especially as they are represented through the media. Indeed the total effect of the show as a highly-charged cavalcade of symbolic imagery imitates our current never-ending, always escalating media exposure.
At the opening of the show, we see a clip of Kim Kardashian--the epitome of self-as-brand, someone who is truly only famous for being famous--explaining how she must be talented because she is rich. This clip frames the subsequent action for the audience as we follow three male characters in their attempts at authentic self-fashioning away from suburbia and the "land of make believe/That don't believe in me."
Out of the Box's concept for the production foregrounds this particularly American malaise, the dissatisfying circumscription of the self, bound by the parameters of commodity culture. The show's scenic design supports the theme of the individual defined as product, brand, social media alter-ego. To illustrate, a large screen hangs over the stage space on the upstage wall, continuously streaming a montage of text and imagery gleaned from commercials, news, and social media. Out of the Box regularly employs Center Stage's upstage back wall to great effect, expanding the visual perception of the intimate theatre's stage space. In this production, the upstage screen's imagery and text (designed with virtuosity by Timothy Reese) exists in precisely timed dialogue and sometimes counterpoint, with the action on stage.
The upstage visuals assist the audience in following the story (though I suspect many audience members are more fluent in Green Day lyrics than I am). More significantly, the upstage screen functions as a kind of god-like omnipresence wielding power over the lives of those below. The director signals our obedience to the great god Media when the whole of the cast's energy drops as their necks bend in reverence to their hand-held phones like monks called to Evensong. The total effect of the scenic space with the imagery upstage, the band visible at the back, and the fail-son character of Will (Tyler Ledon), perennially planted on a futon stage right, made for a collage reminiscent of Richard Hamilton's pop art. And like pop art, the show condemns the vapidity of consumer society ("soda pop and Ritalin") even as it cannot quite escape celebrating it.
Out of the Box veteran performer Kasey Bryant brings sensitivity and a tragic layer to the character of Johnny who ventures to the big city to recreate himself. Zachary Allen Thompson shines with singular panache in an ensemble role, especially when he plays a character so mannered that his humanity has been entirely consumed by style. As a through-sung musical, the performers face significant vocal demands that the entire cast easily meets. Samantha Eve's rich vocals in the role of Heather are a real treat. The show features choreography by Mitchell Webb that solves the paradox of the chaotic, individualized, frenzied movement of punk with synchronized choral movement led by the multi-talented Terry Li.
The sensational saturation of the scenic and auditory space finally succumbs to the gravitational pull of narrative closure that reminds us that we, like the three main characters, have but journeyed to the land of punk, and now we are returned to the American musical. The characters return to suburbia where "everyone left you/Nobody likes you/ [...] /They're all out without you/Havin' fun." Maybe they're all at Center Stage watching this show.