Based on the eponymous Green Day concept album, American Idiot is a rock-musical homage to both the band’s work and the subculture of punk rock.
Admittedly, not every musical is everyone’s cup of tea – American Idiot wasn’t mine. This long stretch of a one-act focused on disenchanted youth punking their way toward ever-greater forms of dissolution. Unfortunately, the show would be a trial for anyone who expects a theatrical experience to transcend the mundane rather than wallow in it. That being said, the energy of the show is irrefutable and the flash of the lighting and scene design are as big and overwhelming as any touring pop performance today.
The musical is a direct stage adaptation of the hugely popular American Idiot album, with all of its music, lyrics and book by Green Day lead singer, Billie Joe Armstrong, with a hand by Spring Awakening director Michael Mayer on the story. The show is sung throughout, so basically it is one Green Day song strung to another with a loose plot pinning it all together. Whereas the last musical on the Walton Arts Center stage, Anything Goes, classically whimsies its way from song to song, here the plot feels labored and a chore. The fun of recognizing the songs and seeing them dramatized was undermined by the struggle to determine the specifics of how they were bolstering the plot.
The three disenfranchised buddies who lead, Johnny, Tunny and Will, are all white suburbanites eager to leave for the big city, guitars in hand. Their vitriolic critique of American culture catapults them into its worse manifestations. Will discovers early in the first scenes that his girlfriend, Heather, is pregnant and stays behind to couch potato his way to alcohol and nicotine soaked parenting. Tunny joins the army and goes to war shortly after he and his friend make it to the city. Johnny, abandoned and alone, spirals into a violent bout of drug abuse with his alter ego, St. Jimmy, characterized as a Mohawk-sporting dealer, and ends by destroying his budding relationship with an unnamed punk girl. The potential for emotional depth in such highly dramatic storylines, in contrast to the music’s bawling notes of despair and rage, is fairly unplumbed.
For me, the wall of sound that makes punk rock what it is seems poorly served by the musical form. The audience seems surreally out of place calmly regarding the production from their seats instead of joining mosh-pit style into the fray. Lyrics are occasionally indiscernible, despite the familiarity of the songs, and the story line is stripped to nonsense. In one horrific aerial scene, Will, now an amputee war veteran, spirals confusingly above stage with a woman who has just discarded a sort of theatrical burqa. Arabic script lines the wall. They twirl and sing.
The non-equity tour struggles in places. Billie Joe Armstrong periodically played the role of St. Jimmy, as did other rock icons like Melissa Etheridge throughout the Broadway production. The character’s role on stage as a sort of ethereal presence seems crucial, but Trent Saunders who plays the part in this production just doesn’t deliver vocally. While some actors were impressive, particularly Johnny’s unidentified lover, playfully billed as Whatsername, interpreted with feisty gusto and an impressive set of pipes by Alyssa DiPalma, others didn’t quite seem at home. Mostly cast by fresh-faced newly grads, the latest touring production has some promising stars and some who have probably not yet found their niche in the theatre world.
The choreography held some redemption for me. The most striking scene, following Johnny and Whatsername shooting up in a gritty bedroom, was an intense moment where they dance entwined by large rubber bungee cords resembling the bands they used with the syringe. Contemporary dance moments surfaced throughout the show to lovely effect. Another number where Heather, the mother of Will’s child, frantically throws herself into his arms during a row is quite moving. At other times, the consistency of the coordinated group syncopation has a numbing effect. Still the wildness of performers leaping from fire escapes and ledges and emphatically pumping their fists, waists and heads in the air is often a thrill – audience members will not be bored by their enthusiasm. And indeed, the audience Friday night seemed very engaged.
All in all, if Green Day’s music was pivotal for you, this show is sure to serve up a good dose of nostalgia. The cast does seem committed and unflagging. For me, it was a low point in a spotty season of occasionally lukewarm musicals.
American Idiot runs through the weekend. Tickets can be purchased at www.waltonartscenter.org or by calling 479-443-5600.