The new Broadway musical "American Idiot" starts off at a fever pitch -- and stays there. By the time it ends, 90 minutes later, you may feel more numbed than stirred.
Based on Green Day's 2004 concept album of the same name, the show, which opened last night, delivers an impressive amount of terrific numbers. Many have a genuine melodic pull underneath their brash power, and they are imaginatively, punchily staged by director Michael Mayer ("Spring Awakening") and choreographer Steven Hoggett ("Black Watch").
If only we could take a breather once in a while.
Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong structured the record around a very loose story that was beefed up for the stage -- but not quite enough.
The musical is about three vaguely disenfranchised 20-somethings. Johnny (John Gallagher Jr., the screwed-up guy from "Spring Awakening") goes to the big, bad city and starts doing hard drugs. Will (Michael Esper) is a pot-addled slacker who knocks up his girlfriend (Mary Faber). Tunny (Stark Sands) joins the Army and ends up in the Middle East.
The women are little more than window dressing. Typically, Johnny's girlfriend (the vibrant Rebecca Naomi Jones, stuck in a thankless part) is referred to as Whatsername. Maybe Randomchick would have been too obvious.
Mayer compensates for the lack of plot by re-creating onstage the media-saturated, sensation-overloaded environment that shaped our anti-heroes. His hyperactive production buries the audience under a blizzard of images and sounds. Christine Jones' scenic design is dominated by flashing TV screens, while Darrel Maloney's projections occasionally take up the entire back wall.
The cast throws itself with gusto into the elemental movement and the songs. And there are a lot of them: The original "American Idiot" album -- including the hits "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and the title track -- is supplemented with several other Green Day cuts, like last year's "21 Guns."
It's all aesthetically consistent, which is why "Extraordinary Girl" really sticks out. In that fantasy sequence, the wounded soldier Tunny is swept up for a wire-supported aerial love ballad with a woman who takes off a burqa to reveal an outfit straight out of "I Dream of Jeannie."
This nod to musical-theater conventions suggests that the punk-rock brigade isn't out to upend Broadway -- or the mainstream in general. For evidence, look no further than the encore, in which the actors, strumming acoustic guitars, reveal that an American Idiot is only a breath away from an American Idol.
Rage and love, those consuming emotions felt with a particularly acute pang in youth, all but burn up the stage in “American Idiot,” the thrillingly raucous and gorgeously wrought Broadway musical adapted from the blockbuster pop-punk album by Green Day.
Pop on Broadway, sure. But punk? Yes, indeed, and served straight up, with each sneering lyric and snarling riff in place. A stately old pile steps from the tourist-clogged Times Square might seem a strange place for the music of Green Day, and for theater this blunt, bold and aggressive in its attitude. Not to mention loud. But from the moment the curtain rises on a panorama of baleful youngsters at the venerable St. James Theater, where the show opened on Tuesday night, it’s clear that these kids are going to make themselves at home, even if it means tearing up the place in the process.
Which they do, figuratively speaking. “American Idiot,” directed by Michael Mayer and performed with galvanizing intensity by a terrific cast, detonates a fierce aesthetic charge in this ho-hum Broadway season. A pulsating portrait of wasted youth that invokes all the standard genre conventions — bring on the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, please! — only to transcend them through the power of its music and the artistry of its execution, the show is as invigorating and ultimately as moving as anything I’ve seen on Broadway this season. Or maybe for a few seasons past.
Burning with rage and love, and knowing how and when to express them, are two different things, of course. The young men we meet in the first minutes of “American Idiot” are too callow and sullen and restless — too young, basically — to channel their emotions constructively. The show opens with a glorious 20-minute temper tantrum kicked off by the title song.
“Don’t want to be an American idiot!” shouts one of the gang. The song’s signature electric guitar riff slashes through the air, echoing the testy challenge of the cry. A sharp eight-piece band, led by the conductor Carmel Dean, is arrayed around the stage, providing a sonic frame for the action. The simple but spectacular set, designed by Christine Jones, suggests an epically scaled dive club, its looming walls papered in punk posters and pimpled by television screens, on which frenzied video collages flicker throughout the show. (They’re the witty work of Darrel Maloney.)
Who’s the American idiot being referred to? Well, as that curtain slowly rose, we heard the familiar voice of George W. Bush break through a haze of television chatter: “Either you are with us, or with the terrorists.” That kind of talk could bring out the heedless rebel in any kid, particularly one who is already feeling itchy at the lack of prospects in his dreary suburban burg.
But while “American Idiot” is nominally a portrait of youthful malaise of a particular era — the album dates from 2004, the midpoint of the Bush years, and the show is set in “the recent past” — its depiction of the crisis of post-adolescence is essentially timeless.
Teenagers eager for their lives to begin, desperate to slough off their old selves and escape boredom through pure sensation, will probably always be making the same kinds of mistakes, taking the same wrong turns on the road to self-discovery.
“American Idiot” is a true rock opera, almost exclusively using the music of Green Day and the lyrics of its kohl-eyed frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong, to tell its story. (The score comprises the whole of the title album as well as several songs from the band’s most recent release, “21st Century Breakdown.”) The book, by Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Mayer, consists only of a series of brief, snarky dispatches sent home by the central character, Johnny, played with squirmy intensity by the immensely gifted John Gallagher Jr. (“Spring Awakening,” “Rabbit Hole”).
“I held up my local convenience store to get a bus ticket,” Johnny says with a smirk as he and a pal head out of town.
“Actually I stole the money from my mom’s dresser.”
“Actually she lent me the cash.”
Such is the sheepish fate of a would-be rebel today. But at least Johnny and his buddy Tunny (Stark Sands) do manage to escape deadly suburbia for the lively city, bringing along just their guitars and the anomie and apathy that are the bread and butter of teenage attitudinizing the world over. (“I don’t care if you don’t care,” a telling lyric, could be their motto.)
The friend they meant to bring along, Will (Michael Esper), was forced to stay home when he discovered that his girlfriend (Mary Faber) was pregnant. Lost and lonely, and far from ready for the responsibilities of fatherhood, he sinks into the couch, beer in one hand and bong in the other, as his friends set off for adventure.
Beneath the swagger of indifference, of course, are anxiety, fear and insecurity, which Mr. Gallagher, Mr. Esper and Mr. Sands transmit with aching clarity in the show’s more reflective songs, like the hit “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” or the lilting anthem “Are We the Waiting.” The city turns out to be just a bigger version of the place Johnny and Tunny left behind, a “land of make believe that don’t believe in me.” The boys discover that while a fractious 21st-century America may not offer any easy paths to fulfillment, the deeper problem is that they don’t know how to believe in themselves.
Johnny strolls the lonely streets with his guitar, vaguely yearning for love and achievement. He eventually hooks up with a girl (a vivid Rebecca Naomi Jones) but falls more powerfully under the spell of an androgynous goth drug pusher, St. Jimmy, played with mesmerizing vitality and piercing vocalism by Tony Vincent. Tunny mostly stays in bed, clicker affixed to his right hand, dangerously susceptible to a pageant of propaganda about military heroism on the tube, set to the song “Favorite Son.” By the time the song’s over, he’s enlisted and off to Iraq.
In both plotting and its emotional palette, “American Idiot” is drawn in brash, primary-colored strokes, maybe too crudely for those looking for specifics of character rather than cultural archetypes. But operas — rock or classical — often trade in archetypes, and the actors flesh out their characters’ journeys through their heartfelt interpretations of the songs, with the help of Mr. Mayer’s poetic direction and the restless, convulsive choreography of Steven Hoggett (“Black Watch”), which exults in both the grace and the awkwardness of energy-generating young metabolisms.
Line by line, a skeptic could fault Mr. Armstrong’s lyrics for their occasional glibness or grandiosity. That’s to be expected, too: rock music exploits heightened emotion and truisms that can fit neatly into a memorable chorus. The songs are precisely as articulate — and inarticulate — as the characters are, reflecting the moment in youth when many of us feel that pop music has more to say about us than we have to say for ourselves. (And, really, have you ever worked your way through a canonical Italian opera libretto, line by line?)
In any case the music is thrilling: charged with urgency, rich in memorable melody and propulsive rhythms that sometimes evolve midsong. The orchestrations by Tom Kitt (the composer of “Next to Normal”) move from lean and mean to lush, befitting the tone of each number. Even if you are unfamiliar with Green Day’s music, you are more likely to emerge from this show humming one of the guitar riffs than you are to find a tune from “The Addams Family” tickling your memory.
But the emotion charge that the show generates is as memorable as the music. “American Idiot” jolts you right back to the dizzying roller coaster of young adulthood, that turbulent time when ecstasy and misery almost seem interchangeable states, flip sides of the coin of exaltation. It captures with a piercing intensity that moment in life when everything seems possible, and nothing seems worth doing, or maybe it’s the other way around.
Anyone who had hoped that Green Day would finally bring punk-rock nihilism to Broadway is about to be sorely disappointed.
Few could have predicted that American Idiot (* * * ½ out of four), the new adaptation of the band's massively popular, starkly disenchanted album of the same name, would be the feel-good musical of the season.
But in the hands of director Michael Mayer, who also co-wrote the libretto with Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, Idiot has become just that — as well as a case study in the power of teamwork in musical theater.
Mayer is to be credited with recognizing the hope amid the social commentary and sometimes-unfocused angst of the show's source. Armstrong has described the album as a response to the Bush administration's assault on civil liberties after 9/11, but the songs' anti-war messages and accounts of youthful alienation do little more than retread paths charted with more insight and depth in the 20th century.
The stage version of Idiot, which opened Tuesday at the St. James Theatre, flirts with cliché as well. The cast members, dressed in the gaudy, tattered garb that's the universal uniform of disaffected teens and twentysomethings, stumble like zombies around Christine Jones' cluttered, spectacular set, which suggests a post-apocalyptic rec room. TV sets hang everywhere, flashing hypnotic appeals to the captive kids: Tune in. Zone out. Buy. Enlist.
Luckily, Mayer and Armstrong refuse to dismiss individual characters as victims of society, incapable of making choices — or growing up, for that matter — and the dynamic cast obliges their generosity. As Johnny, a suburban lad whose big-city dreams lead to bigger challenges, John Gallagher Jr. delivers a performance that's more nuanced than his Tony-winning turn as a tortured misfit in Spring Awakening but just as intense.
Rebecca Naomi Jones wields sensual ferocity and disarming tenderness as the girlfriend who won't give up on him (for a while, at least). Michael Esper and Stark Sands appear as Johnny's beleaguered buddies; the first is stumped by unexpected fatherhood, while the latter's dreams of military heroism exact a harrowing price. But both are drawn, and played, with an empathy, humor and zest that defy pity.
The score, which also includes songs from Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown, is similarly buoyant. Tom Kitt's lush, harmony-laden arrangements make the tunes work in a theatrical context without sacrificing their guitar-fueled crunch.
And Steven Hoggett's athletic, exhilarating choreography ensures that even the most slacker-like ensemble members eventually wake from their trances — and keeps the audience happily enthralled.
Not that you'll need much prodding to fall for this fundamentally affectionate, surprisingly uplifting show. Not if you've ever been a kid, or believed in one.
In the tradition of "Hair," "Rent" and "Spring Awakening" comes "American Idiot." Adapted from the 2004 Grammy-winning rock album by Green Day, this tale of three slackers from small-town USA has been given a visually robust style, an ear-splitting sound and a rock-concert feel by director Michael Mayer, as well as several elements that recall his admirable staging for "Spring Awakening." But while likely to find an appreciative audience, "Idiot" doesn't approach the impact of that work or its illustrious predecessors.
There is no questioning the musical credentials of "American Idiot"; the CD has sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and 14 million worldwide, and appeared on many "greatest albums of the decade" lists. For theatrical purposes, it is a little less functional than other albums that have preceded it to Broadway, such as "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Evita" and "The Who's Tommy," all of which spin discernible and engrossing stories in their legit translations.
By contrast, dramatic narrative is the weakest element of the stage version of "American Idiot." Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.), a self-described "Jesus of Suburbia," flees the boredom of small-town life for the big city, where he meets a girl, Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones); falls under the control of drug dealer St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent); and finally breaks with both and returns home like Dorothy Gale goin' back to Kansas. And that's it. The lyrics make clear that Johnny is broke and unemployed, but offer no hint as to how he supports his burgeoning drug habit; this might be somewhat clearer to those familiar with the CD, where the lyrics might be more decipherable.
Meanwhile, Johnny's two suburban sidekicks follow different trajectories. Tunny (Stark Sands) falls in thrall of a national hero (Joshua Henry) and enlists in the Army, losing a leg on the battlefield but gaining dignity and a nurse girlfriend. Will (Michael Esper), meanwhile, remains stuck at home with a pregnant lover and drinks himself into a stupor.
Dramaturgy aside, "American Idiot" comes dressed in an exciting and impressive production. Mayer's set designer, Christine Jones, has contrived a monumental space flanked by towering postered walls incorporating 43 busily working video monitors. There is also a metal staircase to the stars, or the flies of the St. James, which is only half used by the director; the two upper landings are reserved for the violinist and the violist, who must get pretty lonely up there. Mayer and Jones have been joined by video designer Darrel Maloney and lighting designer Kevin Adams to create what might be termed a "really big show." (For the record, Mayer's fellow "Spring Awakening" colleagues here include Jones, Adams, sound designer Brian Ronan, leading man Gallagher and lead producers Tom Hulce and Ira Pittelman.)
Choreographer Steven Hoggett ("Black Watch") keeps his cast of 19 jumping, literally so; unlike the memorably kinetic jumps of Bill T. Jones' "Spring Awakening," the "American Idiot" company seems to be jerked about like so many marionettes. As for the performers, Gallagher stands out, though without the distinction of his performance in that other musical. Sands ("Journey's End"), the one principal who did not participate in "Idiot's" fall tryout at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, gives an arresting performance, especially in the latter part of the show; he also performs something of an aerial ballet with a girl (Christina Sajous) who is a hallucinated version of Barbara Eden in "I Dream of Jeannie" -- that's how it's explained in the script -- which brings a new twist to Never Never Land.
Topping it all is the music, credited to Green Day (Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool). Lyrics are by Armstrong, while the book, such as it is, is credited to Armstrong and Mayer. The 57-minute CD has been expanded to 1½ hours, with some songs added from Green Day's 2009 album, "21st Century Breakdown." The score sounds especially good in the theater, presumably due to the ministrations of arranger and orchestrator Tom Kitt (who received a Pulitzer this month as the composer of "Next to Normal"). The addition of three strings -- there's a cellist stored under a rolling staircase -- heightens the theatricality, and the almost nonstop music is ably conducted by Carmel Dean, even if the band and the orchestrations often drown out the lyrics and hamper the storytelling.
"American Idiot" is a rousing, cannily assembled stage spectacle. While it might not attract the traditional theatergoers who championed "Rent" and "Spring Awakening," expect fans of Green Day and fans of rock concert musicals to help fill the St. Jimmy -- that is, the St. James -- for some time to come.