New York City Theater
St. James Theater
At last, a musical for the mosh pit crowd. “American Idiot” at the St. James Theater is all twisting arms, jumping bodies and a story so dispensable that it disappears into the banks of TV sets embedded in the stage’s back wall like so many zits on a teenager.
Actually, the music that underpins the evening is terrific. It is, as aficionados know, by Green Day, that band dedicated to exposing what’s wrong with the world. A distant, zonked-out cousin to “Hair,” their punk opera has, like Pogo, “met the enemy and he is us.”
These are the lost kids of an alien, consumer-driven nation, products of endless war and uneasy peace. The TV pictures say as much with their loops of the Bush-Cheney crowd, culminating in an upside down U.S. flag, signaling distress. “Signs leading nowhere and no one seems to care” goes the lyric.
Instead of burning draft cards and carrying placards denouncing war and politicians, Johnny, the show’s leading character, just, well, drops out, leaving hearth and home for the Big City. His buddies, on the other hand, are either caught up in an unwanted marriage and fatherhood (Will) or go to war (Tunny).
The boys’ tales play out against Christine Jones’ grungy set that features not only those many TV monitors but blinding strobes (courtesy of gifted lighting designer Kevin Adams who’s beginning to repeat himself), a couch and bed that bedbugs would enjoy, plus far-reaching staircases. While Will is saddled with wife and infant, and Tunny is off to battle where he’ll lose a leg and gain a bride, Johnny sees a girl in a window. Although she has crossed, as one song has it, his “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” she’s an anonymous cipher who’s called Whatsername. Their drug-filled romance is abetted by the satanic pusher, St. Jimmy, who clutches and almost destroys our hero.
The evening is filled with images at once degrading and beautiful. Among the latter is a flying sequence wherein a morphine-addled Tunny imagines dancing in the sky. His partner is a Muslim woman whose burqa is soon shed for something more provocative.
It’s an example of how women are treated in this adolescent enterprise. Despite the sex, despite expressions of sensuality, these are three boy-men more comfortable with each other than anyone else. Will’s restlessness, Johnny’s drug dependence and Tunny’s heroics are akin to schoolyard games, a high-stakes recess.
With a sort of book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer (lyrics by Armstrong and direction by Mayer), “American Idiot” has sequences of sensory excitement. Adding to the delirium are Tom Kitt’s orchestrations and Steven Hoggett’s choreography.
John Gallagher, Jr., who won a Tony for “Spring Awakening” (also directed by Mayer) is a dominating, charismatic figure. Michael Esper is Will, Stark Sands is Tunny and Rebecca Naomi Jones is Whatshername – and they’re fine. But it’s Tony Vincent as the evil St. Jimmy who burrows under the skin as someone you wouldn’t want to encounter in an alley, dark or otherwise.
For the curtain call, the entire cast trots out guitars and sings “The Time of Your Life,” another Green Day song. After an hour and a half of nothing much happening, the title is misleading. Yet, somehow, “American Idiot” delivers what it promises: a high energy snapshot of a going nowhere generation.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 21, 2010