Thursday, April 22, 2010
From The New York Times:
Stomping Onto Broadway With a Punk Temper Tantrum
by Charles Isherwood
Rage and love, those consuming emotions felt with a particularly acute pang in youth, all but burn up the stage in AMERICAN IDIOT, the thrillingly raucous and gorgeously wrought Broadway musical adapted from the blockbuster pop-punk album by Green Day.
Pop on Broadway, sure. But punk? Yes, indeed, and served straight up, with each sneering lyric and snarling riff in place. A stately old pile steps from the tourist-clogged Times Square might seem a strange place for the music of Green Day, and for theater this blunt, bold and aggressive in its attitude. Not to mention loud. But from the moment the curtain rises on a panorama of baleful youngsters at the venerable St. James Theater, where the show opened on Tuesday night, it's clear that these kids are going to make themselves at home, even if it means tearing up the place in the process.
Which they do, figuratively speaking. "American Idiot," directed by Michael Mayer and performed with galvanizing intensity by a terrific cast, detonates a fierce aesthetic charge in this ho-hum Broadway season. A pulsating portrait of wasted youth that invokes all the standard genre conventions - bring on the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, please! - only to transcend them through the power of its music and the artistry of its execution, the show is as invigorating and ultimately as moving as anything I've seen on Broadway this season. Or maybe for a few seasons past.
Burning with rage and love, and knowing how and when to express them, are two different things, of course. The young men we meet in the first minutes of "American Idiot" are too callow and sullen and restless - too young, basically - to channel their emotions constructively. The show opens with a glorious 20-minute temper tantrum kicked off by the title song.
"Don't want to be an American idiot!" shouts one of the gang. The song's signature electric guitar riff slashes through the air, echoing the testy challenge of the cry. A sharp eight-piece band, led by the conductor Carmel Dean, is arrayed around the stage, providing a sonic frame for the action. The simple but spectacular set, designed by Christine Jones, suggests an epically scaled dive club, its looming walls papered in punk posters and pimpled by television screens, on which frenzied video collages flicker throughout the show. (They're the witty work of Darrel Maloney.)
Who's the American idiot being referred to? Well, as that curtain slowly rose, we heard the familiar voice of George W. Bush break through a haze of television chatter: "Either you are with us, or with the terrorists." That kind of talk could bring out the heedless rebel in any kid, particularly one who is already feeling itchy at the lack of prospects in his dreary suburban burg.
But while "American Idiot" is nominally a portrait of youthful malaise of a particular era - the album dates from 2004, the midpoint of the Bush years, and the show is set in "the recent past" - its depiction of the crisis of post-adolescence is essentially timeless. Teenagers eager for their lives to begin, desperate to slough off their old selves and escape boredom through pure sensation, will probably always be making the same kinds of mistakes, taking the same wrong turns on the road to self-discovery.
"American Idiot" is a true rock opera, almost exclusively using the music of Green Day and the lyrics of its kohl-eyed frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong, to tell its story. (The score comprises the whole of the title album as well as several songs from the band's most recent release, "21st Century Breakdown.") The book, by Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Mayer, consists only of a series of brief, snarky dispatches sent home by the central character, Johnny, played with squirmy intensity by the immensely gifted John Gallagher Jr. ("Spring Awakening," "Rabbit Hole").
"I held up my local convenience store to get a bus ticket," Johnny says with a smirk as he and a pal head out of town.
"Actually I stole the money from my mom's dresser."
"Actually she lent me the cash."
Such is the sheepish fate of a would-be rebel today. But at least Johnny and his buddy Tunny (Stark Sands) do manage to escape deadly suburbia for the lively city, bringing along just their guitars and the anomie and apathy that are the bread and butter of teenage attitudinizing the world over. ("I don't care if you don't care," a telling lyric, could be their motto.)
The friend they meant to bring along, Will (Michael Esper), was forced to stay home when he discovered that his girlfriend (Mary Faber) was pregnant. Lost and lonely, and far from ready for the responsibilities of fatherhood, he sinks into the couch, beer in one hand and bong in the other, as his friends set off for adventure.
Beneath the swagger of indifference, of course, are anxiety, fear and insecurity, which Mr. Gallagher, Mr. Esper and Mr. Sands transmit with aching clarity in the show's more reflective songs, like the hit "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" or the lilting anthem "Are We the Waiting." The city turns out to be just a bigger version of the place Johnny and Tunny left behind, a "land of make believe that don't believe in me." The boys discover that while a fractious 21st-century America may not offer any easy paths to fulfillment, the deeper problem is that they don't know how to believe in themselves.
Johnny strolls the lonely streets with his guitar, vaguely yearning for love and achievement. He eventually hooks up with a girl (a vivid Rebecca Naomi Jones) but falls more powerfully under the spell of an androgynous goth drug pusher, St. Jimmy, played with mesmerizing vitality and piercing vocalism by Tony Vincent. Tunny mostly stays in bed, clicker affixed to his right hand, dangerously susceptible to a pageant of propaganda about military heroism on the tube, set to the song "Favorite Son." By the time the song's over, he's enlisted and off to Iraq.
In both plotting and its emotional palette, "American Idiot" is drawn in brash, primary-colored strokes, maybe too crudely for those looking for specifics of character rather than cultural archetypes. But operas - rock or classical - often trade in archetypes, and the actors flesh out their characters' journeys through their heartfelt interpretations of the songs, with the help of Mr. Mayer's poetic direction and the restless, convulsive choreography of Steven Hoggett ("Black Watch"), which exults in both the grace and the awkwardness of energy-generating young metabolisms.
Line by line, a skeptic could fault Mr. Armstrong's lyrics for their occasional glibness or grandiosity. That's to be expected, too: rock music exploits heightened emotion and truisms that can fit neatly into a memorable chorus. The songs are precisely as articulate - and inarticulate - as the characters are, reflecting the moment in youth when many of us feel that pop music has more to say about us than we have to say for ourselves. (And, really, have you ever worked your way through a canonical Italian opera libretto, line by line?)
In any case the music is thrilling: charged with urgency, rich in memorable melody and propulsive rhythms that sometimes evolve midsong. The orchestrations by Tom Kitt (the composer of "Next to Normal") move from lean and mean to lush, befitting the tone of each number. Even if you are unfamiliar with Green Day's music, you are more likely to emerge from this show humming one of the guitar riffs than you are to find a tune from "The Addams Family" tickling your memory.
But the emotion charge that the show generates is as memorable as the music. "American Idiot" jolts you right back to the dizzying roller coaster of young adulthood, that turbulent time when ecstasy and misery almost seem interchangeable states, flip sides of the coin of exaltation. It captures with a piercing intensity that moment in life when everything seems possible, and nothing seems worth doing, or maybe it's the other way around.
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