In the tradition of "Hair," "Rent" and "Spring Awakening" comes "American Idiot."
In the tradition of “Hair,” “Rent” and “Spring Awakening” comes “American Idiot.” Adapted from the 2004 Grammy-winning rock album by Green Day, this tale of three slackers from small-town USA has been given a visually robust style, an ear-splitting sound and a rock-concert feel by director Michael Mayer, as well as several elements that recall his admirable staging for “Spring Awakening.” But while likely to find an appreciative audience, “Idiot” doesn’t approach the impact of that work or its illustrious predecessors.
There is no questioning the musical credentials of “American Idiot”; the CD has sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and 14 million worldwide, and appeared on many “greatest albums of the decade” lists. For theatrical purposes, it is a little less functional than other albums that have preceded it to Broadway, such as “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita” and “The Who’s Tommy,” all of which spin discernible and engrossing stories in their legit translations.
By contrast, dramatic narrative is the weakest element of the stage version of “American Idiot.” Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.), a self-described “Jesus of Suburbia,” flees the boredom of small-town life for the big city, where he meets a girl, Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones); falls under the control of drug dealer St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent); and finally breaks with both and returns home like Dorothy Gale goin’ back to Kansas. And that’s it. The lyrics make clear that Johnny is broke and unemployed, but offer no hint as to how he supports his burgeoning drug habit; this might be somewhat clearer to those familiar with the CD, where the lyrics might be more decipherable.
Meanwhile, Johnny’s two suburban sidekicks follow different trajectories. Tunny (Stark Sands) falls in thrall of a national hero (Joshua Henry) and enlists in the Army, losing a leg on the battlefield but gaining dignity and a nurse girlfriend. Will (Michael Esper), meanwhile, remains stuck at home with a pregnant lover and drinks himself into a stupor.
Dramaturgy aside, “American Idiot” comes dressed in an exciting and impressive production. Mayer’s set designer, Christine Jones, has contrived a monumental space flanked by towering postered walls incorporating 43 busily working video monitors. There is also a metal staircase to the stars, or the flies of the St. James, which is only half used by the director; the two upper landings are reserved for the violinist and the violist, who must get pretty lonely up there. Mayer and Jones have been joined by video designer Darrel Maloney and lighting designer Kevin Adams to create what might be termed a “really big show.” (For the record, Mayer’s fellow “Spring Awakening” colleagues here include Jones, Adams, sound designer Brian Ronan, leading man Gallagher and lead producers Tom Hulce and Ira Pittelman.)
Choreographer Steven Hoggett (“Black Watch”) keeps his cast of 19 jumping, literally so; unlike the memorably kinetic jumps of Bill T. Jones’ “Spring Awakening,” the “American Idiot” company seems to be jerked about like so many marionettes. As for the performers, Gallagher stands out, though without the distinction of his performance in that other musical. Sands (“Journey’s End”), the one principal who did not participate in “Idiot’s” fall tryout at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, gives an arresting performance, especially in the latter part of the show; he also performs something of an aerial ballet with a girl (Christina Sajous) who is a hallucinated version of Barbara Eden in “I Dream of Jeannie” — that’s how it’s explained in the script — which brings a new twist to Never Never Land.
Topping it all is the music, credited to Green Day (Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool). Lyrics are by Armstrong, while the book, such as it is, is credited to Armstrong and Mayer. The 57-minute CD has been expanded to 1½ hours, with some songs added from Green Day’s 2009 album, “21st Century Breakdown.” The score sounds especially good in the theater, presumably due to the ministrations of arranger and orchestrator Tom Kitt (who received a Pulitzer this month as the composer of “Next to Normal”). The addition of three strings — there’s a cellist stored under a rolling staircase — heightens the theatricality, and the almost nonstop music is ably conducted by Carmel Dean, even if the band and the orchestrations often drown out the lyrics and hamper the storytelling.
“American Idiot” is a rousing, cannily assembled stage spectacle. While it might not attract the traditional theatergoers who championed “Rent” and “Spring Awakening,” expect fans of Green Day and fans of rock concert musicals to help fill the St. Jimmy — that is, the St. James — for some time to come.