Monday, November 9, 2009

"American Idiot": The Kids of War and Peace

It was announced today that American Idiot, the Green Day rock musical, is going to Broadway! All right, there's been speculation to that effect for weeks, and this press release is still quite vague. Nevertheless, I have been meaning to write about seeing this show at Berkeley Rep, so tonight's a good time to do it.

I actually saw American Idiot twice--first, with my friend Anushka, about four weeks ago (see her excellent comments on the show). We sat in the second row, which blasted our eardrums and allowed us to really admire the performers' drive and energy, but was almost too close, because there is so much going on at every moment of the show. After seeing it with Anushka, I realized that my friend Chanelle (a punk rock fan) had to see this musical too, and I wouldn't mind going again if I could sit further away, and Berkeley Rep has that wonderful half-price-tickets-for-young-people deal... so I ended up returning last week.

Seen from the balcony, American Idiot is still plenty loud, and you gain a better appreciation for the actors' blocking and the gigantic set (which includes a car hanging from the ceiling). At times, I didn't know where to look: there are about 30 video screens, and projections, and flashing LEDs, and traditional lighting effects, and a high-powered young cast who haven't had all their idiosyncrasies ironed out of them. In the true punk rock spirit, each person executes their dance steps in a slightly different way, even if they're all using the same movement vocabulary. This is not traditional Broadway, where every dancer kicks their leg at the same precise angle--instead, these performers dance according to their personalities and their instincts, meaning that everyone onstage is doing something unique.

It amazes me both that American Idiot is such a whiz-bang technological marvel (the first time I saw it, the hydraulic lift malfunctioned, requiring a 5-minute pause to fix it), and also that the cast, these flesh-and-blood human beings, have the stamina to go out and perform it every night!

The Green Day songs are catchy and some of them directly tap into the universal well of post-adolescent angst. When the cast performs the ballads "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "Wake Me Up When September Ends," it's a great communal moment as we acknowledge that we all feel the loneliness, alienation and pain described by the lyrics and set to these soaring choruses. But there are also plenty of punk-rock barnburners, such as "American Idiot" and "St. Jimmy."

The main character of American Idiot is Johnny, aka Jesus of Suburbia, played by John Gallagher, Jr. What energy that guy has! I saw him in Spring Awakening as the nerdy, twitchy, uncomfortable-in-his-own-skin Moritz--and in American Idiot he was twitchy, too, but in a different way. He perfectly incarnated the snot-nosed, eye-rolling post-adolescent. Johnny is the only character with any spoken dialogue--just a few lines between some of the songs, to clarify the plot. This narration can be over-the-top, e.g. "I've got an axe to grind, and it's splittin' my head open!" But that also makes it a modern-day kind of street poetry--the bastard child of Clifford Odets.

Not that the plot of American Idiot is hard to understand: just the tale of a suburban kid who goes to the city with nothing but a backpack and a guitar, falls in love, gets hooked on drugs, ruins his life, gets clean, and returns to the 'burbs, a little wiser. There's only one thing that confused me, and it's more a problem of character than of plot. When Johnny first arrives in the city, he spots a beautiful girl (Whatsername, played by Rebecca Naomi Jones) leaning out of an upstairs window. Dressed in white, pure and angelic, she reminded me of Maria on the West Side Story fire escape. So I assumed "OK, this is going to be the old story of the boy from the wrong side of the tracks who must prove himself worthy of the love of the cool, upper-class city girl." But the next thing you know, Whatsername is dancing around in her underwear and enthusiastically shooting up drugs with Johnny. She's not Maria from West Side Story, she's Mimi from Rent--a sweet girl deep down, but also a wild child! And I feel that this should have been clearer when Whatsername first appeared.

Subplots deal with Johnny's friends' attempts to leave suburbia. Michael Esper plays the incredibly thankless role of Will, who can't go to the city with Johnny because his girlfriend is pregnant. He spends the entire show moping on a couch at stage right, unable to participate in much of the singing or dancing. My friend Anushka suggested that the show could be improved by adding "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" for Will to sing--the song fits his situation and, by singing one of Green Day's biggest hits, Esper could have a better moment in the spotlight.

Heather, Will's pregnant girlfriend, is played by Mary Faber, although the first time I saw American Idiot, it was with an understudy in the role. The understudy sang sweetly and earnestly, but Faber has more of a rock-n-roll edge to her voice, so I preferred her.

Johnny's other friend, Tunny, joins the Army and goes to Iraq. He is wounded, but finds love with a hospital nurse. The actors in these roles, Matt Caplan and Christina Sajous, have great chemistry--and they'd better, because they are performing a complex aerial ballet eight times a week! Their flying sequence, set to the song "Extraordinary Girl," is one of the show's highlights.

Anushka and I were both a little bothered, though, by the way that the gender roles in American Idiot are so reductive. They're reductive in the same way that the gender roles in Spring Awakening were--but Spring Awakening is based on a 100-year-old play, so it would be unreasonable to expect its female characters to conform to modern ideals. American Idiot, as a 21st-century musical, doesn't have that excuse. I don't mean to say that it's offensive or misogynistic... just that it doesn't allow the female characters the same complexity or subjectivity or range of experience as the men. They're all a little objectified. They're all angels. Maybe that's par for the course with punk rock?

The devil of the play, meanwhile, is St. Jimmy, the drug dealer--played by Tony Vincent, an amazing, androgynous presence. Upon reflection, it struck me as a little funny that so much money and talent has gone into a show whose moral could be described as "Hey Kids, Drugs Will Fuck You Up," as though it were a bad after-school special. But that's a little uncharitable: I don't believe American Idiot is a particularly deep show, but it is certainly a fast-paced and entertaining one, not a chore to sit through twice, and Green Day has a knack for writing songs that capture a mood.

They say that no one has ever gone broke underestimating the stupidity (idiocy?) of the American public. But I also think that no one has ever gone broke overestimating American adolescents' craving for works of art that tap into the angst of their generation. I predict that American Idiot becomes a big hit on Broadway.

Top photo: John Gallagher Jr. and Tony Vincent. Bottom photo: Gallagher.

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