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Review: 'American Idiot' at the Winspear Opera House
by Jerome Weeks 15 May 2012

Unlike Spring Awakening, American Idiot was built for big houses like the Winspear. The Broadway musical packs a visual wallop to match Green Day’s pop-punk thunder. Trouble is, wallop and thunder is mostly all we get.

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The tour of the Tony Award-winning rock musical American Idiot is making its North Texas premiere at the Winspear Opera House. In his review KERA’s Jerome Weeks calls it a thunderous pageant – but not much more.

  • Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)
  • KERA radio review:
  • Expanded online review:

[‘Know Your Enemy’ starts, continues under]

That’s from the cast album of American Idiot, which as a rock musical, is more or less the pop-punk Hair of 2004. Green Day’s original album sold 14 million copies. It took on the familiar topics of teenage anger and desire, sex and drugs – but also, like Hair, young Americans going to war. With a live band onstage, the musical reproduces the group’s sound remarkably faithfully. As a result, the show packs more roaring power than any rock musical since Tommy.

Michael Mayer, who directed Spring Awakening, had the idea of staging the album. He co-wrote the book with Green Day lyricist and lead singer Billy Joe Armstrong, adding songs and characters to flesh out the story. From his dark, assaultive staging of Spring Awakening, Mayer seems to have learned two things: 1) Relentless, twitchy agitation is effective at conveying both rock ‘n’ roll energy and teen angst. Here, choreographer Steven Hoggett doesn’t match Bill T. Jones’ slamming, trailblazing dances in Spring, but the ensemble in Idiot seems to have been fed nothing but energy drinks. They’re pulling a remarkable, non-stop workout here, all leaps, kicks, punches and rolls.

2) One of the weaknesses with the Broadway and touring versions of Spring Awakening was that the show had been built for off-Broadway, tight and intimate. It didn’t have the visual scale for a Broadway stage (even with all the strutting and jump-kicks, the tour felt swallowed up in the Winspear).

In comparison, it’s clear Green Day was built for the big houses. Mayer unleashes a torrent of video and lighting fireworks all across Christine Jones’ jungle-gym-fire-escape-and-scaffolding set. Vast banks of flickering TV screens may be a cliché image of our empty, media-saturated lives, but designers Darrel Maloney and Kevin Adams keep American Idiot blazing visually. They do stuff with those projections and screens you probably haven’t seen before: A snowfall of what looks like sheets of paper is particularly evocative, recalling the ashes falling from the Twin Towers. And there is a beautiful aerial ballet as well.

But like most rock musicals that started life as albums – like Tommy or Jesus Christ Superstar or Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor DreamcoatAmerican Idiot is horribly weak when it comes to character detail or storyline. Rather like Spring Awakening or Hair, it basically follows three buddies (and, ultimately, three couples) as they try to escape their lame existences and confront adulthood. Tunny joins the army, Will stays home with a pregnant girlfriend. And our every-punk Johnny — our “Jesus of Suburbia” — tries to become a rockstar by moving to the big city. He finds love and a heroin habit, instead.

With Joseph or Superstar, you probably have memories of the storyline more vivid than the outline just given of Idiot. There’s a good reason: You probably knew most of the plot beforehand (thanks, Bible!). Unless you know American Idiot‘s songs from the album (which seems to be the case with a significant, younger portion of the audience), I suspect you’re not going to suss out much more than that outline.

Things remain open-ended and blurry. Who, for instance, is St. Jimmy, the drug pusher, who hooks Johnny and his girlfriend, Whatsername? He’s clearly meant to be the ‘bad demon’ personification of mohawked glamor, success and city life, but beyond that …? Is he just a projection of Johnny’s desires for fame or is he a real person? Is he just a drug dealer with glam pretensions or a local rockstar with a sideline in heroin?

It doesn’t help that, onstage, the singers’ voices are often overpowered by the band, but then, most of the songs have already been turned into powerful, bellowed choruses, anyway, and the fans chant along. It also doesn’t help that Armstrong’s lyrics are often spittingly vehement but also elusive. Armstrong tends to write non-linear, metaphoric shout-outs (“Know Your Enemy”). They convey a free-floating attitude of scorn, defiance, admiration or angry loserdom, followed soon by regret or youthful self-pity (“Before the Lobotomy”). Little of this is rooted in direct cause-and-effect connections. They’re exhortations (“I Don’t Care”) or cutting observations on the passing scene (“City of the Damned”) more than they are character portraits or character expressions — characters other than Johnny’s, that is.

It’s typical, for instance, that at first, the female roles are mostly just idealized romantic projections of the males or they’re bummers for the guys (like Leslie McDonel’s Heatherl — she’s the one who gets pregnant). When Johnny falls for Whatshername, performer Gabrielle McClinton (above, center, the only one in a skirt, naturally) is sexy-striking enough to provide a reason for his moonstruck response, except — who is she? What does she do? What is she — except beautiful and hot?

Well, she’s a rebel, she’s the symbol of resistance and she’s holding on my heart like a hand grenade — all of which is a terrific song lyric but it doesn’t actually say much about her as a character. OK, then, let’s try another song: She’s like a hurricane in the heart of the devastation, she’s a natural disaster, she’s the last of the American girls. All of which is yet another way of saying, “She’s cool.” Or “Gosh, I really, really love her, even if she’s kinda dangerous.”

So this is still just horny, lovestruck Johnny talking. When do we get to hear Whatsername express herself? We never really do; she doesn’t exist much as a separate human being. One of the strongest female contributions (lyric-wise) in American Idiot comes in “21 Guns” — and all the lines that are sung by the Extraordinary Girl (Nicci Claspell), Whatsername and Heather are unanswered questions (“Do you know what’s worth fighting for/When it’s not worth dying for?”)

As Johnny, Van Hughes is a boyish charmer, Scott Campbell is poignant as the wounded Tunny and Joshua Kobak makes for a  strutting, charismatic, full-tilt drug pusher. They may not make these types particularly deep or etched, but as performances, they’re vivid and appealing.

In the end, American Idiot plays out much like Joseph: It’s more  a pageant than a full-fledged musical, a supercharged pageant, to be sure,  but it has little more than big, broad, emotional gestures, moment to moment: Get excited about being young in the city, feel empathy for the wounded vet. We’d be hard-pressed to say precisely what Mayer and Armstrong want to convey beyond, as one song says, “The innocent can never last.” [‘Wake Me When September Ends’ starts and continues under.]

Which, beneath its anti-war fervor and tribal stylings, is pretty much all that Hair had to say, too.

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