For a few years now, I’ve been twitching in my seat, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to see American Idiot. As a fan of the rock opera/rock musical genre (Rent, Spring Awakening, bare), I naturally wanted to see the latest entry into the talent pool. It also helps that I dig on Green Day. Add in the involvement of Spring Awakening‘s Michael Mayer and well, you have a recipe for success.
Unfortunately, the show doesn’t quite succeed.
American Idiot is the story of friends Will, Johnny and Tunney, a trio of partying American youth with dreams but little real ambition to achieve them, aside from Johnny. Strumming their guitars between trips to the 7-Eleven and parties with “the usual suspects”, they don’t have a care in the world. When Johnny finagles three bus tickets to “the big city” for the trio, they pack up and enthusiastically prepare to leave – that is, until Will’s girlfriend, Heather, announces that she’s peed on a good five sticks and all of them are positive.
From here, the story – and I use this term loosely – breaks into three pathways, with scant detail and little explanation.
Johnny and Tunney leave anyway, but while Johnny loves the city lights, Tunney enters into an emo existential crisis of sleeping in bed all day and whining about society. Why he is only now seeing what surely lay before him in the sticks, no one knows; perhaps it’s reduced access to intoxicating substances? Watching an army commercial on TV, Tunney is lured into joining the armed forces, much to Johnny’s dismay.
Meanwhile, Will and Heather begin to eke out a sorta life together as her womb swells up, with Will eventually checking out of reality because of the overwhelming responsibility, much to Heather’s dismay. So wrapped up in his own “woe is me” tale, he’s also lost to Johnny.
Alone, Johnny befriends a larger than life drug dealer named St. Jimmy, who promptly shoots Johnny up and introduces him to Whatshername (literally; that is her character in the cast listing). Their love affair burns out as ultimately, drugs win over human emotions.
The longer the show continues, the more disjointed and rammed together it feels. There’s no coherency to the storyline – just a scant two or three lines and another song begins. And while normally, the music is the dialogue and narration in a musical, the trouble is, although rock operatic, Green Day’s award-winning album is still just an album. Lyrics written for a song are often more abstract and repetitive, and herein lies the weakness of American Idiot: there is no story to follow. It is a performance art concert, or a series of loosely connected vignettes at best. As a result, aside from Johnny, none of the characters are given enough depth to encourage us to care about them.
On the positive side, the performances by all cast members are strong, and the staging/sets is brilliantly done. TV screens covers the walls behind the performers, broadcasting propaganda and insights into the characters, while a set of stairs made of steel rods and steps is tilted on its side to become a ramp, converted to resemble a bus and more throughout the piece, the ensemble effortlessly pulling off the changes. Nicci Claspell makes her aerial work look easy, rolling and flying across the stage effortlessly.
The strongest points of the production are the opening sequences of “American Idiot” and “Holiday”, the acoustic guitar-laden “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, and encore “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)”, which allows the ensemble to shine in a fun goodbye to the audience. But they’re not enough to save the production from the mid-show lag, where every song sounds like the next, and no real exposition seems to be happening anymore.
American Idiot feels like a show still in workshop, in need of fine tuning to better convey its meaning. This isn’t to say it’s not worth watching; there’s enough beauty and innovation here to make a trip to the theatre worthwhile. But to call it the “first groundbreaking musical of the 21st century” when it’s preceded by the truly brilliant Spring Awakening and is essentially a less-coherent Rent is an overstatement. I have seen Rent three times, Spring Awakening sixteen times. I am glad I have seen American Idiot, but feel no urge to go again, no desire to seek nuances and moments previously missed.
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