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Theatre Wed Feb 08 2012

Review: American Idiot


Rock operas and punk rock concept albums have both been around for decades, but it took Green Day singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong to finally combine the two. Co-written and directed by Tony Award winner Michael Mayer, American Idiot -- based on the Green Day album of the same name -- follows three bored, 20-something friends and the differing life paths they take: one stays in the suburbs, one joins the army, and one moves to the big city to follow his rock 'n' roll dreams.

...At least, that's what I could make of the plot. Through choreographed song performances and the occasional non-musical monologue, the characters' storylines are told through a melodramatic collage of anti-Bush/pro-"revolutionary" sentiment, middle-class white male angst, and sloppy Christian allegory (a la "Jesus of Suburbia"). By the end of the production, I wasn't sure what exactly it was trying to say.

Conceptual vagueness aside, American Idiot is a fast-paced, high-energy audiovisual spectacle. The lighting, choreography, set design, and on-stage live band playing the music worked incredibly well together, and what could have ended up an extra-long music video outtake or episode of "Glee" was instead an upbeat, yet intensely raw performance.

And although it was initially weird to hear Armstrong's voice imitated by a cast of male and female musical theater performers, it turns out Green Day's music sounds great on a Broadway stage. On one hand, most of the solo vocal performances sounded weak in comparison to the drums and amplified guitars. But when the cast sang in unison, it brought a new level of energy and emotional heft to the original songs, and in some ways highlighted the band's songwriting chops better than their actual recordings.

Van Hughes, who plays the main character, "Johnny," brought an infectious enthusiasm to both his spoken and vocal duties. What impressed me the most were several scenes where he had to sing and play guitar at the same time. While no one in the cast was noticeably bad, I felt Hughes' performance was a step above everyone else's, and really anchored the show.

American Idiot does exactly what musical theater should, but not much more than that. Despite efforts to wear its socio-political commentary on its sleeve, the performance is best enjoyed without thinking too hard about what you're seeing.

American Idiot runs Tuesdays through Sundays through February 19 at the Oriental Theatre (24 W. Randolph). Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased online, at the box office, or by calling 312-977-1700.

j_in_chi / February 11, 2012 8:35 PM

I couldn't agree more. I just saw it and enjoyed it immensely. Though it had little narrative, I still walked away feeling like I had seen a show. The book was painted in broad impressionist strokes by music and imagery rather than by dialogue.

I am going to be careful not to give away anything, but some things to look out for. A drinking pregnant woman and her I-told-you-so friend harping on the husband. A LOT of well-endowed people in their underwear. A beautiful dream scene in a military hospital of some US-invaded sandbox. Some realistically acted bedroom movements (Closer to R than to PG-13). an exquisite dance with rubber hoses. Actual singing of harmony (unlike that Witchy musical that had about as much harmony as Bananarama.) A funny nod to the band being bad (they are far from bad!), and finally some of the best synchronization in the dancing that I have ever seen.

The show is kids, all kids, with no "adults" whatsoever, but merely a nod to some unseen parents. Their youthful energy explodes off of the stage and spills over the audience. The story is about 3 ostensibly common paths of young adulthood in America. The protagonists find increasing suffering as they delay an inevitable "adult life." In what I am sure was an unintended moral message, the American Idiots get a taste of how bad their lives can become when they fail to follow the American Plan.

Some minor complaints:
-Would it kill ya to have an intermission?
-At the end there is someone dancing who logically shouldn't be dancing. But this might just be a "Dorothy, it was all a dream" moment.
-I really wanted to pump my arms and sing along, but I felt that the old fogies around me wouldn't stand for it. Staging it at the Vic or Metro would have helped :)
-I think vizio (a sponsor) could have had a few larger screens for those of us that sat near the back.

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