by Byron Woods
Unfortunately, AMERICAN IDIOT is not—repeat, not—the great American grunge opera.
Not with seven central characters this poorly defined and developed. And not with a flimsy book that reads, more than once, like a downer version of HAIR retrofitted specifically for Generation Y.
Since it’s hardly the first—or the twentieth—retelling of the story of disillusioned youth trying to come of age, it’s particularly disappointing that AMERICAN IDIOT comes up with so few new findings.
Much of that difficulty lies with director Michael Mayer. Though Green Day's 2004 propulsive, raw concept album made a number of lists for best album of that year (and decade), the main plot points in Mayer's stage adaptation appear to have been lifted from a couple of that era's movies of the week instead.
Johnny and Tunny, two not particularly robust examples of the genus man-child, forsake the crushing banality of suburbia by fleeing to the big city. (A third man-child, Will, opts to stay home after his girlfriend becomes pregnant.) The experience humbles both in short order: one gets into drugs, while the other joins a military that is—wait for it—dehumanizing and nothing like the commercials on TV.
Just imagine. I’ll wait; it shouldn’t take you very long.
With only a small handful of dialogue lines written (by Mayer and singer Billie Joe Armstrong) to link the various songs, the album’s lyrics basically form the book for these far too familiar tales. Unfortunately, it’s one that’s uneven at best.
In about half of the songs here, Green Day's music and lyrics bristle with sharp, disaffected insights. Music director Jared Stein's band may be a bit quieter than we anticipated; still, they give the martial snarl of punk supremacy to numbers including “I Don’t Care,” “Holiday,” “St. Jimmy,” and a suite including “Know Your Enemy,” “21 Guns,” and “Letterbomb.” These are appropriately leavened by the disillusionment—and vulnerability—of “Give Me Novacaine,” “When It’s Time” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”
At least it rhymes. Other lyrical wastelands are found in “Last Night on Earth,” “Favorite Son,” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”
If the first-generation punk, from which Green Day descends, was a bang—and it was—too many of the songs here seem a whimper by comparison, their potential impact diffused in inept, unsuccessful wordplay.
This uneven sonic landscape is reflected—and, occasionally, camouflaged—by the over-stimulation of Kevin Adams’ theatrical, strobe and LED lights and Darrel Maloney’s relentless fast-forward video montages, played out on over 20 (count ‘em!) monitors across stage. At first Christine Jones’ set ably suggests the basement lair of a live-at-home slacker before its high walls and portable scaffolds place us on punk-filled bus (in the kinetic “Holiday” sequence, a production high point) and in street and low-life apartment scenes in the treacherous big city.
This show’s voices were mostly strong, with a few exceptions. If Van Hughes sounded too much like a junkie on a jones whenever he spoke, his singing in the role of Johnny still carried every song, while Joshua Kobak’s razor-sharp delivery sold “St. Jimmy” and “Know Your Enemy.” On the other hand, the pure porcelain of Leslie McDonel’s voice in “Dearly Beloved” didn’t begin to fit in with its grungy surroundings, and either poor miking or weak pipes made Scott Campbell’s work indistinct in “Are We The Waiting” and made sections of “Before the Lobotomy” (complete with its bizarre aerial Arabian Nights drag choreography) far too flaccid.
Steven Hoggett’s choreography was a similarly mixed bag. There were touching moments in the movement for “Wake Me When September Ends” and riveting kinesis in “St. Jimmy” and “Know Your Enemy.” But the military zombie march in “Favorite Son” was entirely predictable, and dancers who appeared to be running football practice exercises in those sore-thumb sequences in “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Letterbomb” seemed repeatedly about to scrimmage with the front rows of the audience.
To what degree any of these characters ever pulls out of the falling action remains debatable. Johnny kicks the drugs and tries his hand at an office job in “East 12th Street,” with predictable results, before two lives are summarized in the failure anthem “Nobody Likes You.” (A reprise of this is pointedly directed at the audience at the end.)
But after the transparent nominee for a final, here's-what-we’ve-all-learned song, “Whatsername,” a far too glib final paragraph doesn't disguise this show's slapdash, unearned end.
To be fair, you couldn’t discern these shortcomings from the forceful standing ovation the Memorial Auditorium audience gave the work before an all-cast encore of “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).”
On the other hand, similarly unheard in those accolades was a significant number of patrons who constituted the largest group of walkouts I have ever seen at any Broadway Series South or North Carolina Theatre production.
From my vantage in a corner orchestra seat, I couldn't help but observe as a procession of middle-aged and older patrons, many conspicuously dressed for a night on the town, started leaving during IDIOT’s abrasive first scene. That stream continued, intermittently, through the production’s first full hour.
What show did those patrons expect to see? What sources inadequately framed those expectations? Both are questions well worth considering, given the number of ticket-holders so apparently alienated by the most expensive show that night in Raleigh.