Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Thursday, September 17, 2009

American Idiot Review

[Note: Minor spoiler alert.]
When I interviewed Michael Mayer, director and librettist for American Idiot, the epically hyped new Green Day musical that just premiered at Berkeley Rep, it seemed like his primary vision for the show was that of unrelenting action. It would be structured, shockingly enough, for a musical scored by a punk band, like a punk song—short, sweet and to the point, with nary a moment for the audience to take a breath, check their watches or think about what they want to have for dinner the next day (roasted pork loin with seared red chard and caramelized onions). In that respect, it would be an understatement to say that Mayer succeeded. In fact, the only time the show finds time to take a breath, about 15 minutes before the final curtain, everyone in the audience assumed it was over and gave a standing ovation before awkwardly returning to their seats as the next song began. From the show’s very first moment, the stage is so gleefully overstuffed with action you barely know what to focus on. People fly on wires, dance on beds, play guitar solos and hide in corners doing drugs. In a nod to Green Day’s late-'90s MTV ubiquity, a constant shifting of attention is required, but it’s a testament to choreographer Steven Hoggett that this over-caffeinated jumping around never feels especially disjointed. Even when the action hits a rare lull, the set itself, with every inch of its walls plastered over with concert posters, blown-up album covers and TVs constantly running clips is visually sumptuous enough on its own to more than hold your attention.

The show plays the band’s 2004 album American Idiot in its entirely with a couple B-sides from the European release and a song or two from 21st Century Breakdown, which was released earlier this year, thrown in for good measure. All of the songs received new arrangements courtesy of composer Tom Kitt, whose arrangement are generally improvements over the band’s originals. Kitt smartly foregrounds Bille Joe Armstrong’s effortlessly memorable vocal melodies, the singular aspect of the band’s sound that elevated them above their third-wave pop-punk peers (I mean, Rancid wrote some killers ones too but the odds of someone bringing Out Come the Wolves to Broadway are slim). While the new arrangements are smart and catchy, they lack diversity. Virtually every song fits into one of two categories: it’s either a bouncy, power-chord rocker or an acoustic ballad that gradually builds into a sing-along power ballad with nothing in between.

The plot, so much as it exists, tells the story of three friends reaching adulthood in the suburbs. One moves to the city, meets a girl, gets addicted to drugs, loses said girl, and then returns home. Another joins the army and is injured in Iraq. The last knocks up his girlfriend and spends the entire show sitting on a couch in a corner of the stage smoking pot and watching life pass him by. This description makes the plot seem more infinitely involved than it actually is. It’s nearly 20 minutes before anything really happens plot-wise and the most of the characters have about as much depth as a piece of construction paper, but that’s really beside the point. American Idiot, like a good punk song, isn’t really about story or character development. It’s about creating a mood, a particular sneeringly smirking aesthetic that’s immediate, urgent and, if all goes according to plan, as loud as is humanly possible.

In the interview, Mayer said he was nervous about what the band would think of the show. He was a huge fan and didn’t want to disappoint them. Sitting a couple rows in front of the band, I could see Armstrong silently mouthing the words to all of his songs as they were presented in a wildly different context from when he first recorded them. As the final curtain fell, a camera crew rushed to the band to catch them wiping away tears and applauding rapturously. At the end of the day, even though not performing, the show, and the circus surrounding it, is really all about them.

Photo of American Idiot courtesy of

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