It’s Not "Jazz Hands Green Day"

26 Apr

For many years, Broadway’s been trying to hop a ride on the rock and roll bandwagon. The results haven’t always been spectacular. For every Rent or The Who’s Tommy, there’s a less successful effort that’s not even worth naming. So it’s with tempered expectations that the Great White Way welcomes the latest attempt to bring rock to Broadway, American Idiot. The show, which opened last week and which I saw Saturday night, is about as authentic a “rock musical” as you’ll find and a real blast of youthful energy, but it’s not without its problems.

American Idiot uses every song from Green Day’s award-winning album of the same name, plus a handful from the band’s follow-up, 21st Century Breakdown, and a couple of unreleased b-sides. It enhances the music by adding a story of three friends who seek an escape from their dead-end suburban lives but don’t find any happiness: Johnny moves to the city and develops an addiction to a girl and heroin; Tunny decides to ship off to Iraq, where he falls victim to the horrors of war; and Will doesn’t even get to leave town because he’s accidentally impregnated his girlfriend.

As the show begins, we’re barraged by a wall of sound and screens — George Bush, American Idol, Donald Trump, etc. — that set the scene: We’re in the “recent past,” a time of media saturation and too much noise. Just this little burst of instant replay is enough to put you on edge. Then the opening guitar chords of the title song ring out and we meet the cast of angry young men and women. How do we know they’re angry? Because they stomp their feet, thrust their bodies forward in hard motions, throw their fists in the air, and sing with rage and intensity. (It’s not exactly subtle.)

But anyway, at first, it’s a little off-putting to hear Green Day’s songs sung with harmonies and to see them choreographed. After all, this is not exactly the kind of music you dance to. But don’t get the wrong idea: This is not “jazz hands Green Day.” By the end of the second song, “Jesus of Suburbia,” any awkwardness is moot. That’s because of two of the show’s biggest assets: One, Tom Kitt’s awesome arrangements/orchestrations. Kitt, who was in my high school graduating class, and who won the Pulitzer Prize recently for Next to Normal, has maintained the integrity of the songs’ punk rock origins while opening up many of them, and even making a handful of the tracks sound better. “21 Guns” is a particular favorite of mine. Maybe you saw the cast performing it at the Grammy Awards earlier this year.

The other asset is the incredible cast. You kind of wish the Tonys had an award for best ensemble (like the Screen Actors Guild Awards does) because this cast would win it hands down. Each person gives a high-energy, fully-committed performance, and they all work together expertly. While I hesitate to mention anyone in particular, one person did stand out for me: Rebecca Naomi Jones (Whatshername) — and not because she spends most of her time on stage walking around in not much more than her underwear. When she first appears, during “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and adds her voice to the testosterone-filled air, it makes the song even more powerful. Jones’ other vocal contributions (“21 Guns” among them) are equally impressive. I wish she had more to do.

There are a lot of great moments in the show. I liked “Extraordinary Girl,” with its high-flying acrobatics, and thought “When September Ends” was a musical highpoint. I thought the direction of the show (by Spring Awakening‘s Michael Mayer) made the most of a stylishly minimalist set. And I liked that the 95-minute show moves forward at a great pace and doesn’t stop or slow down for an intermission. On the other hand, I didn’t think there was much about the three lead characters that made me want to root for them, other than the fact that one is played by John Gallagher Jr., best known for his Tony-winning performance in Spring Awakening. Johnny doesn’t really have a great story arc, and when he retreats back home at the end of American Idiot, you get the sense that he’s no better off than when he left. Also, I respect the show’s creators’ desire to preserve the order of the songs from the original American Idiot album, but after the emotional and musical peak of “Homecoming,” “Whatshername” feels like an unnecessary, rather anti-climactic coda. I’d have inserted “Whatshername” before the last section of “Homecoming” (i.e., “We’re Coming Home Again”).

American Idiot didn’t, ahem, rock my world like Spring Awakening did, but despite any issues I had, I still really enjoyed it. After all, the music is awesome, and as noted above, it’s put to great use in this show. I dare say this is the best, most hummable, most instantly memorable score on Broadway — at least compared to some other shows I’ve seen in recent years. I foresee myself listening to the original cast recording repeatedly, and I see American Idiot enjoying a long, successful Broadway run.

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