American Idiot @ St. James Theatre, New York

cast list
Declan Bennett, Andrew Call, Gerard Canonico, Miguel Cervantes, Michael Esper, Mary Faber, John Gallagher Jr., Joshua Henry, Van Hughes, Brian Charles Johnson, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Joshua Kobak, Lorin Latarro, Omar Lopez-Cepero, Leslie McDonel, Chase Peacock, Christina Sajous, Stark Sands, Theo Stockman, Ben Thompson, Alysha Umphress, Aspen Vincent, Tony Vincent, Libby Winters

directed by
Michael Mayer
Based on and featuring the songs of Green Day’s 2004 album of the same name, the new Broadway musical American Idiot is certainly a product of our time. Full of the kind of emotastic energy that today’s youth craves from its MTV stars, the show takes on a sonic propulsion of its own in its strongest moments while succumbing to its own lack of structure at its weakest.

For starters, in an immediately post-Bush era, where Obama-age policies seem to have our nation on the mend – or at least on the right path – making a spectacle (in the literal sense) out of American Idiot seems, on the surface, a smidge misguided.
Certainly, things aren’t as bad as they were four years ago, when Green Day’s album seemed to embody the voice of our nation’s youth (not to say our nation’s overall electorate), but there’s something that still resonates about this material and reminds us that the themes of the show remain at the forefront of an audience’s consciousness. After all, we’re still in the midst of a war in Iraq. And we’re still, perhaps more than ever, at the mercy of a national media hellbent on controlling and monitoring our every move.

Beginning with the album’s title song and blasting its way through twenty-plus other pulsating Green Day songs (I guess now that they’re being performed on Broadway, they should be called, affectionately, numbers), American Idiot plows its way through to its conclusion in ninety minutes, chronicling the thinly-constructed story of three angry young men – one who gets stuck at home, one who ventures to the city in hopes of stardom, and another who joins the army.

Inventive, intelligent choreography from Steven Hoggett (notable for his work on the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch) manipulates Green Day’s signature headbanging style, augmenting mosh pit fist-pumping with darker, angular hints of militarism. Thrown into the mix are a movement sequence featuring an oversize elastic tourniquet, a flight sequence involving a woman in a burka revealing herself as a Jasmine-style princess, and some harrowing battle-ready choreography, some of it performed whilst the cast lies on its back, arms and legs in motion.

Still, despite the sound and fury on display, there’s little in the way of a coherent plot to move things forward. Our rock star protagonist Johnny (Tony winner John Gallagher Jr.) descends into a drug-induced madness thanks to the scary, bone-thin Tony Vincent’s harrowlingly drawn St. Jimmy (a sort of stand-in for heroin), an addictive presence who causes a rift between Johnny and his spunky girlfriend Whatsername (a fine-voiced Rebecca Naomi Jones). Meanwhile, stoner Will (a one-note Michael Esper, partly thanks to the lackluster role he’s given to work with) is stuck at home with his pregnant girlfriend, Heather (Mary Faber), and soldier Will (Stark Sands), ends up falling in love with his exotic nurse (Christina Sajous), the object of his hallucinatory fantasies.

What few spoken lines are included (the book is credited to director Michael Mayer and Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong) are mostly superfluous. The first piece of spoken dialogue is “I jerked off into oblivion last night,” and the level of subtlety in the piece follows suit, easily summed up by this kind of pseudo-poetics that seems so dominant in emo culture today, where bleeding heart sentimentality reigns supreme and attempts at earnestness can be misconstrued as corny.

But while the visuals of the show may be enough to keep us interested for the show’s duration, the lack of any coherent book does mean that characters are drawn more by the way actors indicate their feelings (through facial expressions, gestures, and dance) than by what they say. In the context of the show as a whole, this is but a minor deficit. There’s plenty here to admire within director Michael Mayer’s busily-directed production, featuring a towering flyer-plastered set by Christine Jones that’s implanted with a sizable number of TV screens blasting video designed by Darrel Maloney.

It will largely, ultimately, be a matter of taste whether one considers American Idiot a pop-punk theatrical masterpiece (American Genius if you please), voicing the angst of a generation, or a manufactured concert show aping a Broadway musical. To my mind, the show falls somewhere in between. Its fiery cast entertains for its duration, its messages occasionally resonate, but, at least for me, after it was over, its attempts to sum up a generation through archetypal angstiness somehow left me wanting more in the way of old-fashioned storytelling.

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