Peter Marks reviews 'American Idiot' on Broadway

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

NEW YORK Green Day's music has now reached Broadway, but the echoes it creates sound a lot like "Spring Awakening." Is there a hint of "Hair" in the deja vu you're sensing? A reminder of "Rent"? A trace of "Tommy"? A memory of "Movin' Out"?

Maybe it's simply that "American Idiot" -- a new musical built around the songbook of the popular alternative-rock trio, which opened Tuesday night at the St. James Theatre -- suggests that as the foundation of melodic drama, the rebellious-youth thing is getting old. Presented in a visually dazzling package, with coolly aggressive dance steps and the group's exhilarating songs, the show qualifies as a pulsating album in three dimensions, a gallery of zestfully choreographed music videos.

The 90 minutes make for such stimulating spectacle, I would happily sit through them again. And yet, in its attempt to knit a story out of a band's discography, "American Idiot" comes across as ordinary. Too many other productions of recent vintage have taken us over this same rocky terrain, the landscape of youthful alienation. It's surprising how a show with enough imaginative candlepower to light a stadium can appear to have invested so little energy in illuminating its characters, or devising an involving narrative.

Let's dwell for a spell on what works in this production, directed by Michael Mayer, who, it so happens, won a Tony for his staging of "Spring Awakening," the 2006 entry in the Broadway category of disaffected-young-people-who-sing-angry-rock-anthems. Mayer and designer Christine Jones outdo their set for "Awakening" here, with a startling shrine to a tacky media-smothered age: a soaring wall plastered with posters and embedded with dozens of video screens. Half a car body hangs in midair, as do some of the actors.

It's a mosaic of American detritus, stunning in its scale. The chorus of young people looks like America, too: The toned and fuller-bodied dancers alike execute Steven Hoggett's thrusting choreography, the kinetic embodiment of the musical's nearly perpetual snarl. The presence of "Spring Awakening" alumnus John Gallagher Jr. -- who earned acclaim for his portrayal in that production of, yes, another tormented young man -- is a major plus, too. In the story, embroidered with Green Day numbers like "I Don't Care," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "Give Me Novacaine," he serves as our touchstone for a generation's aimless negative energy.

But what a slight and derivative story, by Mayer and the band's Billie Joe Armstrong, has been fashioned around all of this. "American Idiot" concerns the paths of Gallagher's dissolute Johnny and his wayward, beer-guzzling suburban buddies, Will (Michael Esper) and Tunny (Stark Sands). Set in what seems at times the early years of the war in Iraq -- images of George W. Bush flash across the monitors -- the guys stumble into various destinies. Johnny heads for the city, to indulge in drugs and a woman called Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones), which is also the title of an infectious Green Day song. Will gets girlfriend Heather (Mary Faber) pregnant and is sentenced to enforced domesticity. And Tunny heads off to war.

These subplots feel like run-of-the-mill fodder for raging musical riffs, although Johnny's collision with addiction is personified by the fab Tony Vincent, decked out like an especially demonic Goth and portraying a drug dealer inspired by another song: "St. Jimmy." Otherwise, "American Idiot" skulks in the all-too-familiar dark corners of a disposable culture that kills initiative and stunts growth.

It's not clear how we're supposed to take the musical's full-circle resolution, which has Johnny (unconvincingly) tossing away his fixes and warmly reuniting with his pals for "We're Coming Home Again." Still, that they all make their way back to the questionable comforts of those stultifying cookie-cutter streets may be this rousingly staged musical's one intriguingly ambiguous plot point.

American Idiot

Music by Green Day, lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong, book by Armstrong and Michael Mayer. Directed by Mayer. Choreography, Steven Hoggett; costumes, Andrea Lauer; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Brian Ronan; projections, Darrel Maloney; musical supervision, Tom Kitt. About 90 minutes. At the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., New York. Visit or call 212-239-6200.

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