It’s been almost two months since Green Day’s musical, American Idiot premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and it’s aged well – incredibly well. I wanted to write a review quickly after I had seen it in previews but then I decided to wait. I waited to see what the show would and could become after just a few months. The day after I saw it, I bought tickets to closing night so I could see exactly that. (Since then, they extended thier run till November 15th.) And it’s morphed into an electrifying performance that shouldn’t be missed.
When I walked out of the theatre the first time, I knew I had just witnessed history in the making. Musical Theatre has been “rocking” out in every decade since the 60’s, starting with Bye Bye Birdie in 1960. Then Hair came along in the 1968 and changed Broadway forever with it’s subject matter and lack of the normal “book musical”. In 2006, Spring Awakening came along and juxtaposed a 1891 play with updated music by pop/folk composer, Duncan Sheik. Spring Awakening was herald as the new RENT (the 1990’s Rock Opera) and became the new “hit” musical winning the TONY for Best Musical in 2007. Now, American Idiot is headed for a 2010 opening on Broadway (or at least it’s looking for a theatre) and there’s no better show that I think should usher in a new decade on the Great White Way. American Idiot is the new musical. Now, I’m not suggesting throwing away the classic book musical, or even “movie musicals” (though the latter I might be willing to…), but the energy that the performers capture in American Idiot is thrilling and compelling.
The reason why I get so excited about this musical is because it’s been over 40 years since we’ve had a musical theatre song in the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart. The last was “Hello Dolly” sung by Louis Armstrong in 1964. But now, it’s about to change. “21 Guns” is on the radio right now and is the second single from Green Day’s latest album, 21st Century Breakdown. It landed as #3 on the US Billboard Alternative Charts and #22 on US Billboard Hot 100 Chart. And it’s one of the best songs in the production. This is how the entire show runs; it’s one hit after another. After looking at the song list, you’ll realize how many songs you already know, like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (a fantastic stripped-down acoustic version) to “Letterbomb” (an all-female rage-a-thon). Tom Kitt’s (Next to Normal and High Fidelity) vocal arrangements are stunning throughout, yet doesn’t change the overall familiar Green Day “sound”.
Jim Harrington of the Mercury News called it “a light-rock musical” and “a step or two away from being a Disney musical” which could be the two furthest descriptions you could have about American Idiot. While this musical is no real rock concert, it’s about as close as you can come. Johnny, played by John Gallagher Jr. (who won the Tony Award in Spring Awakening) infuses angst into every breath. Throughout the entire 100 minute production, Gallagher’s commitment to his character is fierce without being “overboard punk”.
The main criticism of the show was it’s lack of dialogue and plot line. Karen D’Souza, also of the Mercury News, said “the brief narration is the only clunky part of the piece, because it doesn’t stand up against the lyrics.” Well D’Souza, it’s changed per your suggestion – there’s nothing clunky about it. Now, there is a clear introduction to Johnny’s best friends, Tunny (Matt Caplan) and Will (Michael Esper) within in the first five minutes of the production. Each character takes a very different route – Johnny is off to “the city” to find himself and instead finds the world of drugs, sex and rock n’roll, Tunny decides to go to war after watching late-night television ads and Will stays home to do the “right” thing after he finds out his girlfriend is pregnant, even though he ends up bitter and alone. Each one is noble in their efforts, yet flawed. The audience finds their struggle familiar, almost too familiar for comfort.
Throughout the piece, the ensemble is featured in a way that helps drive the story forward and yet shows off the myriad of talents this young cast has through different featured roles. The energy is obviously notable but so are the vocals, acting and dance. It’s all top-notch and a performance that would easily fit on any Broadway stage.
Steven Hoggett’s choreography is a major standout to an already emotionally-charged performance. It takes a very different approach to the standard “musical theatre” choreography that you’ve become used to. There are no jazz-hands or spirit fingers — mostly head banging and stomping. Yet within all of this stomping Hoggett created a unique story in each song until he combines the different elements at the very end in the song “Whatshername” to create a combined masterpiece. He shows us that past events help define who we are, but don’t define what we can become.
Finally, someone has come along and given musical theatre the electro shock therapy it has needed for so long. While Tom Kitt’s newest musical, Next to Normal, deals directly with the affects of electro shock therapy, American Idiot is electro shock therapy for the audience. It screams independence and acceptance in a way that is nothing short of brilliant.