Theatre Is Easy: “American Idiot”

Written by Theatre, Theatre Is Easy

BOTTOM LINE: Audibly and visually enthralling. Mentally? Not so much. Think of it as a conceptual show — part concert, part art installation — and you’ll be thrilled. But if you go in expecting a play, I imagine you’ll be sorely disappointed.

I’m a big Green Day fan. They’ve always been a band that resonates with me. I love their balance of punk and pop, and I appreciate their passion and message as of late. With their concept album American Idiot (2004), they had something meaningful to say — they were fed up with the American political machine, and they knew their listeners were affected by the tumultuous turn this country had taken in the new century. That album, and the subsequent 21st Century Breakdown (2009), dove into those issues and appealed to listeners to stop being complacent. It was obvious they felt the need to address the outrage on behalf of their fans.

So it wasn’t terribly surprising that American Idiot’s socially conscious, peppy teen anthems transferred to the Broadway stage in the form of a modern rock musical. The genres are actually quite similar now that rock musicals have become mainstream. It was an ambitious project in the sense that the album doesn’t actually tell a story, unlike, say, the Who’s Tommy, which contained characters and plot conflict before it was ever set on a stage. But the energy and the music were there, so they went for it.

The best thing American Idiot, the musical, has going for it is the score. Green Day may have written the music and lyrics, but the producers owe it to Tom Kitt, who created the orchestrations and served as musical supervisor, for the gorgeous interpretation of these songs. Kitt (Next to Normal) transforms the score into some sort of genius hybrid — he keeps the integrity of the original songs intact while adapting them with harmonies and musical complexities. The theater rocks out to punk music, but the musical-theatre sensibility keeps it appropriate for the genre.

With a cast of insanely strong voices to sing these songs, American Idiot is a joy to listen to. John Gallagher Jr. (Spring Awakening), as Johnny, carries the ensemble, but really, everyone is ridiculously talented. Rebecca Naomi Jones (Passing Strange) is sexy and strong as Whatshername, Johnny’s love interest. Christina Sajous, as the Extraordinary Girl, has one of the best voices on the stage.

The second-best thing about the show is the visual concept. American Idiot won only two Tony Awards this year, for scenic design (Christine Jones) and lighting design (Kevin Adams). There’s a good reason for that — the show is somewhat of a larger-than-life art installation, with television screens broadcasting clips relevant to pop culture, and projections evoking a rock concert feel. The height of the staircase on the back wall and the positioning of the show’s band members are other fascinating components to the visuals. It’s a sight to see, and it complements the music perfectly. Director Michael Mayer achieves success moving his actors around the ever-changing set pieces. The experience is seamless and captivating.

So then, why was American Idiot more or less disregarded by press and underawarded at the Tonys? Because it lacks any conceit or intellectual connection through its very weak story. You know how the Twyla Tharp musicals (Come Fly Away, Movin’ Out) are generally not big on a story because they focus on the dance and its connection to the music? Same thing with American Idiot, but trade dancing for singing since the choreography isn’t very interesting either. The lack of book is almost insulting, as if Green Day and Mayer thought the audience would be too blown away by the music to care about characters. Children’s TV shows have more interesting plot lines.

In American Idiot the theme is angry youth. These recent high school grads are really, really pissed off at the world and they don’t know what to do with their lives. It’s not at all clear who they are or why they feel as they do, although I guess we can infer that lack of direction, lack of job prospects, and the general crappiness of 21st-century economics could bring anyone down. There is also the never-ending violence worldwide to add to the disenchantment of the youth.

That’s pretty much it for the plot. One kid gets knocked up, one sits on the couch, one goes to war, one escapes to the city, a few dabble with heroin, and yet the information provided about these characters is nil, so there’s never a reason to care or a story to latch onto. At the end of the play, same as the beginning, you can tell the kids are still pissed off. They’ve all sort of returned home (it’s where the heart is?) and back to where they started (minus a leg, plus a baby). With very little backstory to go on — or care about (c’mon, who isn’t from a broken home?) — these characters aren’t only underdeveloped, they’re sort of unlikable.

Story-lessness aside, I still had a wonderful time at American Idiot. If you go into the experience with an open mind, I imagine you’ll appreciate it for its standout qualities, namely the music, the performances, and the visuals. Just don’t expect a story or thought-provoking theatre; if you do, you’re liable to spend the show thinking about its shortcomings.

American Idiot plays at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. Performances are Mon-Tue and Thu-Fri 8 PM, and Wed and Sat 2 and 8 PM. Tickets are $62-$122 and can be purchased at telecharge.com; save 30 percent on tickets through September 4 with discount code AIBBX45. For more show info, visit americanidiotonbroadway.com, and for more theatre reviews and info, check out theasy.com.