American Idiot

St. James Theatre, NYC - November 2010

Review by John Kenrick

It is always sad to see garbage thrown across a Broadway stage, but it is all the sadder when the people throwing that garbage have the nerve to call the resulting mess a "new musical."  The scenario becomes downright tragic when a substantial portion of the critical community, terrified of being called "old fashioned," tosses aside anything resembling sanity or taste and calls the trash in question "moving," "thrilling" and "groundbreaking."  (All three of these terms appeared in the NY Times review -- oh, how the mighty have fallen.) In the case of American Idiot, the tedious effluvia now desecrating the stage of the St. James Theatre, the only thing I was "moved" to was nausea, my one "thrill" was in leaving at the end, and the only "groundbreaking" I could envision happily was the burial of anyone responsible for bringing this excrescence to Broadway.

Fans of the rock group Green Day, who have long since memorized the dreary lyrics this group sets to even drearier melodies, might have a shot at following what transpires in American Idiot. But over-amplification and deafening decibel levels make it virtually impossible for anyone else to decipher what is being sung -- no, make that screamed -- in an hour and a half of deafening cacophony.  And when you cannot follow the words, theatre is not possible.  Theatre is also not possible without some range of emotion. With perhaps three exceptions, the two dozen songs in American Idiot are all about various aspects of teen rage, an emotion that wears pathetically thin after a very few minutes. In this show, there is no discernable attempt at dramatization, characterization or dialogue, the basic elements of good storytelling in any literary genre.  Instead, we get a staged rock concert interrupted for bits of narration, tepid ADHD-inspired physical spasms in place of choreography, and a host of rather heavy handed lighting effects. The result is not something "moving" or "groundbreaking," but rather something devoid of anything like heart or meaning.

Since the creators of American Idiot do not bother to give their characters memorable names (for example, one is labeled "Whats-her-name" in the Playbill, but never called that in the show itself), I will not bother to do it for them here. As best I could decipher, the action involves three angry white teenage boys who decide to leave their small town (unnamed) in search of something (undefined) elsewhere (again, unnamed).  But one of these skinny-jean clad lads chooses to stay behind when his girlfriend turns up pregnant, and as his relationship goes nowhere we watch him drown his uncertainties (of course, unspecified) by gurgling booze and the rancid water from his heavily used pot bong. Another of these antiheroes suddenly (and with no explanation) decides to join the military (branch unspecified) and go off to war (location unspecified) where he loses a leg and falls in love with a black female nurse (for no clear reason other than she is handy).  The third malcontent goes to a city (you guessed it, unnamed) where he finds an addiction to heroin and a black girl (conveniently naked and in bed) who happily doesn't mind his intravenous drug habit or the fact that he never bathes (as he keeps reminding us in the obscenity-packed narration). After less than a year (trust me, it feels far, far longer), the three gents reunite with much of their anger seemingly pummeled out of them, but damned if I can tell why -- or why you, I or anyone else should give a damn.

At the performance I attended, the lead (that's the heroine addict, by the way) was played with brash enthusiasm by standby Van Hughes. (As when I twice saw Spring Awakening, star John Gallagher, Jr. did not deign to appear here -- someday I may get to see this much heralded actor, assuming he ever bothers to show up). Michael Esper inspires no sympathy as the stoner who stays home, and although Stark Sands has muscles to spare and flies through a Cirque du Soliel-style aerial routine with mild aplomb, he is more or less a cipher on stage. I could not discern what if anything makes his character tick.

In fact, none of the characters in American Idiot really tick -- they shriek, holler, stomp, hurl fists, slam doors and utter tired vulgarities by the truckload, but none of them really develops or shows any signs of depth.  This is not the fault of the cast, but rather of the authors who do nothing but express rage, rage and more rage. When all a writer has to offer is rage, I suggest shutting up until he or she has something more to offer -- trust us, oh angry ones, its been done already!  Furthermore, characters without clear identities are no one, undefined places are nowhere, and undefined motivation makes action pointless. It is an insult to pass off something about no one that takes place nowhere for no clear reason as real storytelling. Without specificity, there is simply no one and nothing to care about. If a character walked on and slaughtered the whole lot, I would have not cared one bit. Actually, while violence tends to turn me off, a simulated bloodbath might have enlivened things a bit here.

The incredibly ugly, TV-packed set by Christine Jones could have used a touch of color to cover up the monotony of its sleaze, as could the grungy costumes by Andrea Lauder. The lighting by Kevin Adams redefines "pretentious" -- I for one am bored silly by rock musicals that annoy an audience with blinding lights in their eyes instead of moving them with actual emotional content.  And sound designer Brian Ronan (whose work I deeply admired in Next to Normal) seems to have joined the growing list of those who think volume equals dramatic power, when in truth all it equals is headaches and hearing loss for hapless listeners. Director Michael Mayer continues his regrettable effort to push modified rock concert stagings as a respectable choice for full-priced Broadway musicals. As a Green Day fan who accompanied me to this show put it, "I could have saved the money, stayed home and listened to my albums."

There is clearly an audience for American Idiot. A number of people were visibly pleased by the performance I attended.  But just as much of the audience was as turned off as I was, and made no secret of their feelings on the way out. If American Idiot can be called "groundbreaking" in any way, it is only because it is the first rotten Broadway musical that has had the temerity to name itself after its target audience.

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