American Idiot celebrates a year in the life of the early 21st Century American dudebro. Based on the multi-platinum 2004 album by pop-punk 90’s survivors Green Day, Idiot follows the misadventures of a band of three suburban dudes looking to make it in the big city. Quickly, the trio are separated into a triptych of plots that follow the typical tropes of the privileged-young-American-male-ennui genre: domestic dissatisfaction, military sacrifice, and drug-induced self-annihilation. All sung through to the score of a pretty decent Green Day album. Rock on?
That last plot is the focus here, following Johnny (the solid Jared Nepute) through the well-worn story of the Young Soulful Artist Struggling To Make it In the Big City With the Love of A Good Woman But It’s All Derailed When a Charismatic Bad Influence Gets Him Hooked on Drugs. That bad influence takes the form of St. Jimmy, played by appropriately inappropriate Carson Higgins who brings to the proceedings an anarchic energy that much of the production sorely lacks. He’s something of a cross between Sid Vicious and Mephistopheles. Otherwise, much of the night is spent building up Johnny’s anti-authoritarian cred with generic swipes at the political and cultural Man and watching him make poor life decisions. Johnny’s a very safely dangerous protagonist.
Johnny’s action takes place center stage, while, stage right, domestically stuck Will (Casey O’Farrell) suffers through the motions of marital dissolution with panicking new mother Heather (a game Mariah MacFarlane). Stage left is dominated by young wounded warrior Tunny (Dan Tracey), whose attempts to earn himself respectability through military service are cut shatteringly short. Surprisingly, it’s these military-centric sequences that are some of American Idiot’s strongest and Tracy makes for a soulful young warrior.
To it’s credit American Idiot is the rare major Broadway release to deal directly with the impacts of the War on Terror on the individual soldier. The domestic sub-plot is the weakest, suffering from a bad case of Poor Put Upon Husband Syndrome.
This points to one of American Idiot’s major problems. As thinly crafted as our trio of suburban heroes may be, they are Shakespearean in form compared to the show’s roles for women. The women of Armstrong and Meyer’s book are more often seen than heard, there to either back up the boys, please them sexually, beg for their attention, or storm off in a huff.
More often than not, they don’t even have names but labels like Whatshername and Extraordinary Girl. That these “names” are pulled from titles of songs from the album is a flimsy excuse. Armstrong and Meyer only deign to bless one of them with a human name, Heather, and she’s at best a harridan and arguably a villain of the piece. This objectification is a tragedy given that the women of the cast are uniformly great. I wish the powers that be had given them more to do than offer backup (or their bodies) to the boys. Olivia Puckett gives her all in the largely silent role of Whatshername. The character’s early silence is a shame because when Puckett’s fully unleashed with her own number late the in show (“21 Guns”) she’s a sexy, riotous treat with serious pipes.
While the book by Michael Mayer and Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong is insubstantial to the point of vapor, the technical production itself is virtually unimpeachable. Director Michael Mayer and choreographer Steven Hoggett keep the well-drilled ensemble moving. What little plot is there is almost entirely driven through sharp visual storytelling and creative staging. Individual moments such as an early military recruitment and a drug-induced dance duet between two lovers bound by a length of rubber medical tubing shine bright, almost enough to mask the fact that it all barely holds together. This is a compliment!
The techno-industrial set by Christine Jones is a grungy wonder. Dozens of flat screen televisions flash with the imagery of those first tumultuous years of the century. Prepare to see a lot of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney up there, along with images of the destruction of Iraq peppered with the distractions of reality TV and other early-aughts detritus. And what can I say? I’m always a sucker for a well-used scaffolding. There’s nothing more theatrical than a mobile, multi-story jungle gym for hot young bodies to crawl all over. It’s a beautiful, functional playing space that rightly earned Jones a Tony Award. The live band, too, is great, and wisely positioned on the far wings of the stage.
So is the show GOOD? Sure. It’s fine. It’s fun. The cast is pretty great and Green Day fans will hear most of the hits (nothing from Dookie, though!). Not a word I write will affect ticket sales one iota.
But I can’t get over the feeling that the whole shebang is exceedingly safe. Before I saw American Idiot, I never knew there was such a thing as a properly executed headbang. But there they are, a solid dozen flannel- and denim-clad youths rocking their heads and pounding their fists in perfect time. Because rebellion and personal individuality are best expressed in sharply choreographed unison, right?
American Idiot gives its audience just enough sex, drugs and righteous ennui to make the crowd at the National feel like they’ve just seen something edgy and daring. It’s a culturally acceptable, Broadway-approved dose of rebellion sold at a premium. That’s American Idiot. All sound and fury, signifying a hell of a lot of money.
American Idiot . Music by Green Day . lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong . book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer . Directed by Michael Mayer . With Jared Nepute, Dan Tracy, Casey O’Farrell, Olivia Puckett, Taylor Jones, Mariah MacFarlane, Carson Higgins, Alex Boniello, Liam Fennecken, Sean Garner, Francesca Granell, Antwaun Holley, Andrew Humann, Alison Morooney, Johnny Newcombe, Michael Pilato, Eric Presnall, Turner Rouse, Jr., Josephine Spada and Chelsea TurbinSound design, ACME Sound Partners . video/projection design, Darrel Maloney. Presented at The National Theatre . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.
Kyle Osborne . EntertainmentOrDie
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
Missy Frederick . Washingtonian
John Stoltenberg . DCMetroTheaterArts
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
Morgan Halverson . MDTheatreGuide