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A CurtainUp Review
American Idiot

Don't wanna be an American idiot.
Don't want a nation that doesn't know media.
And can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The subliminal mind fuck America.

— The Company
American Idiot
John Gallagher Jr.
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
I was only vaguely familiar with the rock group Green Day and its concept album American Idiot when it was announced as a Broadway production. As good fortune would have it, our son was visiting during spring break. When I told him that I was not only going to see it but also going to review it, he said, "I'll leave you the CD which I just happen to have in the car." Crash course ahead: A relative outsider to the genre I am not only impressed by this rock opera's melodic, seriously agitating score but also by the show's uncompromising agenda. It's no revelation to Green Day fans that American Idiot was conceived as a rock opera in the tradition of The Who's Tommy.

  Externalizing the rage of those who choose to lose themselves in the wasteland of a hypocritical nation ("I'm not part of a redneck agenda") American Idiot shares many of the same ideological values that made a classic of Hair. Yet much of the fearlessly in-your-face staging by director Michael Mayer is also commemorative of Rent. More importantly, the frenzied choreography by Steven Hoggett with its shades of moshing and skanking are light years away from either Rent or Hair.

  The ability of the company, even working within the minimalist demands of the book (by Green Day's leader Billie Joe Armstrong and Mayer) to create an emotionally debilitated world of discontents is commendable. Suburbia is apparently no place for Johnny (John Gallagher, Jr.), a miserably unhappy, unwashed young man with a guitar. His plan to make a new life in the city with his two best friends Will (Michael Esper) and Tunny (Stark Sands) is thwarted when Will decides to stay at home with Heather (Mary Faber) his pregnant girl friend.

  Although Tunny goes along, he is soon mesmerized by a group of shapely USO dancers and by a macho muscular recruiting officer. He enlists and is sent off to war. Left alone, Johnny finds comfort in the arms of a stunning and exciting woman, "Whatsername" (Rebecca Naomi Jones), but finds even more comfort in hard drugs thanks to devilishly gender bending pusher St. Vincent (Tony Vincent.) Tunny finds out that war is hell. Will finds out that staying home on the couch is hell. And Johnny finds out how to make his own hell before everyone sings "We're Coming Home Again."

  Some may care to define the evolving music of Green Day as "pop rock, " or "emo rock." Whatever one calls it, this ambitious score unquestionably defines the characters just enough for us to get the message: They are all depressed, disenfranchised, disengaged, devoid of aspirations and oblivious to anything that might be recognized as the joy of living. The songs, including several from the band's GRAMMY Award-winning new release 21st Century Breakdown (like "21 Guns") are mostly notable for their emotional turbulence. Occasionally there is an unexpected breakthrough of the fantastical: The obligatory, but also heartbreaking dream sequence/aerial ballet "Extraordinary Girl" that taps into the seriously injured Tunny's hallucinations while in an army hospital.

  At its best (which is most of its 100 minutes) American Idiot explodes like a keg of musical dynamite. At its most challenging, you may think that it's a trial to watch the principal characters vent their pain and face their personal demons without any concessions made to any humor, sense of hope or happiness. It never was for me. Odd as it may seem, American Idiot is not nearly as depressing as it could or should be. Perhaps it is because the sheer energy expended by the cast is as awesomely frightening as it is compelling. There is an outstandingly impassioned performance by Gallagher, Jr., a Tony winner for Spring Awakening. As Johnny, he virtually disintegrates before our eyes only to win us over with his pitiful naiveté. Of the other astonishing performances, there is the poignancy of Sands awakening to his reality as the wounded Will that stands alone and lofty in its own right.

  What is particularly impressive is how Green Day's neo punk pop sound and politicized fury has been fitted into a striking visual dramatic frame. The action takes place in "Jingletown, USA" during the Bush years. It is played out against a giant wall plastered with posters, ads and a variety of newsy graffiti. Wedged into this are metal fire escapes, and numerous TV screens on which abstracted visuals (impressive design by Darrel Maloney) are combined with war footage and close-ups of the stage action. These serve as intensely graphic support to the 21 songs. Selected worn furnishings and set pieces to suggest different venues are moved in and out with aplomb.

  A little familiarity with the songs wouldn't hurt the uninitiated. But strikingly melodic songs like "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "Wake Me Up When September Ends" and "Give Me Novacaine" also stand out for their trenchant and scalding lyrics. Certainly the despairing sentiments of the text as well as the collected anti-social rebelliousness of the characters often reflect aspects of Spring Awakening. It's isn't surprising to see that some of the collaborators on that show (Mayer, Gallagher, Jr., scenic designer Christine Jones, and lighting designer Kevin Adams have been fortuitously reunited.

  Tom Kitt (the Tony and Pulitzer prize -winning composer of Next to Normal) has brilliantly orchestrated the blistering score for the seven on-stage musicians under the empowering direction of Carmel Dean. One more thought on the sound. Despite the necessary marriage of rock music with high volume, Brian Ronan's sound design was laudable for keeping the balance of music and lyrics crystal clear and free of distortion. Whether you are haunted or taunted by American Idiot, you will have to concede that contemporary musical theater has come far indeed from the era of gals, gams, and gags.

Postcript After Seeing a Post Opening Opening with Special Surprise Bonus: Like Simon, I was unfamiliar with Green Day's music. This offspring of Rent, Hair and Spring Awakening, is an undeniable you've come a long way baby addition to the musical theater genre. The physical and vocal energy of the performers is amazing and the set too oozes snap, crackle and pop. When I was there on the evening of April 22nd there was an extra special buzz in the orchestra because not only were the members of the Green Day band that's responsible for the show's music in the audience-- but they got on stage for a surprise live concert that turned up the volume full blast. Singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong belted out the title song declared, then blared out the opening power chords of “American Idiot,” the show’s title song and the audience was beyond enthusiastic as they joined in. This may be the latest wrinkle in the ever popular talkbacks at straight plays. However, while those talkbacks can work with a lot of different guests, there's only one Green Day. Their availability permitting, I wouldn't write off the possibility of occasional such post-show concerts to give audiences that extra bang for their buck. -- Elyse Sommer, April 23, 2010.

American Idiot
  Music by Green Day, Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong
  Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer
  Directed by Michael Mayer

  Cast: John Gallagher Jr.(Johnny), Stark Sands (Tunny), Michael Esper (Will), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Whatsername), Christina Sajous (The Extraordinary Girl), Mary Faber (Heather), Tony Vincent (St. Jimmy). Ensemble: Declan Bennett, Andrew Call, Gerard Canonico, Miguel Cervantes, Joshua Henry, Brian Charles Johnson, Leslie McDonel, Chase Peacock, Theo Stockman, Ben Thompson, Alysha Umphress, Libby Winters.
  Scenic Design: Christine Jones
  Costume Design: Andrea Lauer
  Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
  Sound Design: Brian Ronan
  Video/Projection Design: Darrel Maloney
  Running Time: 1 hours 40 minutes no intermission
  St. James Theater, 246 West 44th Street
  (212) 239 - 6200
  Tickets ($127.00 to $32.00) Performances: Tuesday at 7 PM, Wednesday through Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 PM & 8 PM, and Sunday at 2 PM & 7 PM.
  Previews began 03/24/10
  Opened 04/20/10
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on press preview performance 04/17/10

1. American Idiot /Company

2. Jesus of Suburbia
a. Jesus of Suburbia /John Gallagher Jr. and Michael Esper
b. City of the Damned /Stark Sands, John Gallagher Jr.. Michael Esper and Company
c. I Don't Care /John Gallagher Jr.. Michael Esper. Stark Sands and Company
d. Dearly Beloved /Mary Faber and Men
e. Tales of Another Broken Home /John Gallagher Jr., Michael Esper. Stark Sands.

Mary Faber and Company
3. Holiday / John Gallagher Jr.. Stark Sands. Theo Stockman and Company
4. Boulevard of Broken Dreams /John Gallagher Jr., Rebecca Naomi Jones, Stark Sands and Men
5. Favorite Son /Joshua Henry and Women
6. Are We the Waiting /Stark Sands. Joshua Henry and Company
7. St. Jimmy/ John Gallagher Jr., Tony Vincent and Company
8. Give Me Novacaine /Michael Esper. Stark Sands and Company
9. Last of the American Girls'V'She's a Rebel /John Gallagher Jr., Rebecca Naomi Jones, Michael Esper, Chase Peacock, Tony Vincent and Company
10. Last Night on Earth /Tony Vincent, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Mary Faber and Company
11. Too Much Too Soon /Theo Stockman, Alysha Umphress. Michael Esper and Mary Faber
12. Before the Lobotomy /Stark Sands, Chase Peacock, Joshua Henry and Ben Thompson
13. Extraordinary Girl / Christina Sajous, Stark Sands and Company
14. Before the Lobotomy (reprise) /Stark Sands, Chase Peacock, Joshua Henry, Ben Thompson and Company
15. When It's Time /John Gallagher Jr.
16. Know Your Enemy /Tony Vincent. Michael Esper. John Gallagher Jr. and Company 17. 21 Guns /Rebecca Naomi Jones, Christina Sajous, Mary Faber. Stark Sands. John Gallagher Jr., Michael Esper and Company
18. Letterbomb /Rebecca Naomi Jones and Women
19. Wake Me Up When September Ends /John Gallagher Jr.. Michael Esper. Stark Sands and Company

20. Homecoming
a. The Death of St. Jimmy /Tony Vincent and John Gallagher Jr.
b. East 12th Street /John Gallagher Jr.. Gerard Canonico, Theo Stockman and Company
c. Nobody Likes You/ Michael Esper and Company
d. Rock and Roll Girlfriend * /Miguel Cervantes, Mary Faber. Michael Esper and Company/
e. We're Coming Home Again J/ohn Gallagher Jr.. Stark Sands. Michael Esper and Company
21. Whatsername /John Gallagher Jr. and Company

* Lyrics by Mike Dirnt * Lyrics by Tre Cool
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