Thursday, April 22, 2010

Don't Wanna Be An American Idiot?

(PUNK'D? They don't care if you don't. They don't care if you don't. They don't care if you don't caaaaare. I still care.)

So I saw the new American Idiot musical last Tuesday a week before it officially opened on Broadway at the St. James Theater. I've spent the last week or so trying to figure out how I felt about it. Initially, I was disappointed, and that disappointment hit deep. I'm a huge fan of the 2004 Green Day album. It's probably my favorite album of the last ten years. I think it totally lends itself to a stage adaptation. So instead of immediately writing my reaction, I sat with it awhile to see if my disappointment didn't just stem from it not being the stage version of American Idiot that already exists... IN MY MIND.

I have to say that a week later, my appreciation for the show has grown, but my problems with it (and I have a few) have also become clearer in my head. First off I loved what they did with the songs. It feels like the essence of what makes it a great album is intact on stage and the new arrangements by Tom Kitt really brought the songs to life in a new way for me. Plus in their stage renditions, it's much easier to understand some of the lyrics than it is on the original album. So I was good with the songs.

The cast is certainly attacking the show with everything they've got. I thought they all sang the hell out of the whole show and they threw themselves into the choreography (which I didn't really care for. It was kinda repetitive and looked like it had to be a literal pain in the neck for the actors swinging their heads around so much. There was also a lot of hunching over at the waist which has to result in lower back pain. I don't care how in shape these kids are.) My favorite performance belonged to Joshua Henry as the army recruiter singing "Favorite Son." It was a definite high point of the show. Tony Vincent as St. Jimmy also had a lot of stand out moments. John Gallagher Jr. was solid throughout and I really loved what Rebecca Naomi Jones brought vocally to Whatsername. So I was good with the cast.

The stage is amazing. There are different levels and there are more staircases moving around than you could find at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There are plasma screens scattered about the stage that flash TV images or messages throughout the songs. There are projections cascading over every inch of the walls. It's all to very cool effect. So I was good with the set.

So if I dig the songs, the cast and the set, what's the problem? Well, I guess the simple answer is the book. Or the story. Or the lack thereof. On the surface, there's a story about three friends who want to leave the suckitude of suburbia for the awesomeness of the big city. One doesn't make it on account of a pregnant girlfriend and spends the entire show on the couch. One goes to the city to find a girlfriend and get addicted to drugs, maybe not in that order. And the last one goes off to war. In the end they all meet up again. But that's all. I feel like in explaining it, I've somehow already set up more than what's actually there. I felt very removed from all three of them even though I liked how they sang the songs. I was just totally indifferent to these three guys as characters, because they weren't really characters at all. I feel like as a show American Idiot is a series of great songs who need people to sing them, instead of this being a show with great characters who need to sing these particular songs to tell their own stories.

I feel like I should also take just a second to say that I don't think the creators were intending to create the kind of show that I was anticipating. That's not their fault. I think they were successful in creating what they set out to do - dealing with archetypal characters in a rock opera setting. I feel like I get what they were doing, and I enjoyed certain moments and sequences a lot, it just didn't add up for me. There's a lot of passion but the show doesn't have anything new to SAY about these songs. Despite it's moments of punk tantrum, there's a lot in the arc that's oddly conventional and cliched and I couldn't connect on a visceral level. I know other people who saw it and quite enjoyed it, so maybe it's just one of those things where it works for some people and not for others. In that regard, I have a hard time recommending it. I'm much more quickly recommend people see Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (now extended through May 30th at The Public! GO!) which has awesome emo rock songs you don't yet know you love, plus a story and execution that's really gonna grab you. However, I also wouldn't dissuade people from seeing American Idiot if they really wanted to, because the music and the spectacle might be just what they're looking for in a jam-packed 90 minute rock show.

One extra note: the soundtrack to the Broadway version of American Idiot ROCKS and I highly recommend it - especially if you're a fan of the original album. I feel very strongly that Tom Kitt is gonna get another Tony award for his work on the arrangements. The music really works. It's available on iTunes, but it's cheaper as an mp3 download from as fully compatible with Ttunes so i suggest getting it that way.I It's worth adding to your music library.

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