As presented by the Undermain Theatre, Neil Young’s Greendale is a hellacious piece of rock ‘n’ roll. This may be heresy, but music director Kenny Withrow and his band actually sound better than Young’s original recordings — crisper and richer. This baby kicks; you’re not likely to hear a livelier performance in any area theater.
But as a piece of theater, Greendale is often a thin, loose pageant. Young’s 10 songs offer us a half-dozen characters, most from the Green family, all living in a small, California town. There are four basic actions to the story: Caught with drugs in his car, son Jed (Jonathan Brooks) impulsively shoots a highway patrolman and is arrested. Grandpa is so angered by the resulting media onslaught, he has a heart attack. Earl, Jed’s uncle, sells out his art and becomes a more commercially successful painter. And daughter Sun Green (Kristen Campbell) turns into a radical environmental activist, protesting corporate plans for Alaska.
How the last two actions relate to the first two is never entirely clear. Greendale is apparently intended to be a snapshot of troubled American life, a “collective portrait” of thematically related stories — like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio — a form that doesn’t have a single, main narrative. But the cop-shooting and the environmental protest so dominate the show that Greendale really seems to have just two stories with a couple of character profiles attached. And the two stories aren’t satisfyingly fulfilled — except as a direct exhortation to the audience, a stirring call to protest. “Save the planet for another day,” the chorus sings at the end. “Be the rain, be the rain.”
Basically, Undermain executive producer Bruce DuBose and director Katherine Owens haven’t surmounted the narrative and dramatic pitfalls inherent in the rock opera form. Rock songs tend to be self-enclosed, more or less independent, while in the theater, they need to thread together, to advance the story while deepening a particular character or commenting on a particular moment. This is especially so when there’s no script, as in Greendale, no spoken exposition between songs. Recall that the Who’s Tommy went through numerous concert and overblown film adaptations before director Des McAnuff brought it successfully to Broadway. He had the freedom to simplify the story (and learn from others’ earlier mistakes) while also filling in narrative blanks through elaborate staging effects like an opening parachute jump.
The Undermain couldn’t re-shape Greendale — Young signed off on the script himself — and the company’s task was not made any easier by many of his lyrics. Although Young’s songs often talk about characters, they rarely let those characters dramatize themselves in the first person, express themselves directly, certainly not to each other. In opera terms, we need more arias and duets, but ones — and here’s the trick of it — that simultaneously move the story forward.
Instead, what Greendale mostly offers is third-person narration or proclamation. This is actually characteristic of many of Young’s classic “dramatic” songs (consider “Cortez the Killer”). It’s not that Young can’t assume a different persona and speak through him (as in “Powderfinger”). Indeed, in Greendale, the widow of Carmichael (Stefanie Tovar), the police officer who is shot, does have her moment of sorrow, while Grandpa (Richard Rollin) has his rage at the media. In most cases, though, these characters have just a verse or two, part of a much longer lyric. They don’t explore themselves or their emotions over the course of an entire song. Or when they do hold the spotlight — as Earl (DuBose) does in “Bandit” — Young still comments on the character rather than simply letting him speak (“You can’t go to your brother/That money’s all gone”).
As a result, too often, we wind up with one character on stage singing about the actions of another, actions which we watch simultaneously being mimed (sometimes a little redundantly). In other words, it’s a pageant: “Next mornin’, Sun was up at dawn/She looked around and Earth was gone/Dark visions he had last night/He needed peace, he needed light.”
In the original concert and CD version of Greendale, everything was more or less filtered through Neil Young. A singer-performer can produce a compelling piece of theater onstage — live, in person — but unpacking that kind of charisma and inner drama is hell for other people who want to embody it and stage it with actors and props. In compensation, Young has supplied extra narrative background and connective tissue for the songs — Greendale has become his singing Yoknapatawpha County. The Greendale website even provides a family tree for the Green family, while in concert, Young himself often spoke at length between numbers, explaining various characters.
But more background detail is not what’s needed. More drama is needed, more independent interaction between characters — or conversely, more isolation, more separation between the stories and characters so they mostly exist, as in Winesburg, Ohio, as distinct portraits. It’s this halfway nature of Greendale that amplifies the halfway nature of the rock opera form itself and makes the Undermain production less than satisfying as a dramatic experience. I confess I have no solutions that wouldn’t require precisely the kind of re-writing Young probably wouldn’t approve; the Undermain seems to have done the best it can by offering, in effect, a chamber version of the concert show (see, for example, the “Be the Rain” finale from the Greendale DVD for an idea of what the tour looked like).
Released after several disappointing, wandering albums from Young, Greendale was, at least in its music, a terrific return to roots for him: thick, bluesy riffs, aggressively fuzzy guitar and Jimmy Reed-style harmonica. But with Young’s thin tenor taking on most of the chores, singing all the characters, and with most of the songs having roughly the same tempo (a medium stomp), the original version did suffer from a degree of sameness after a while. The sameness is gone at the Undermain, thanks to new voices and different musical textures, courtesy of Withrow, the lead guitarist for the New Bohemians and a record producer as well. Withrow has sensitively cleaned up the garage-band harshness without dulling any of its bite. DuBose’s wonderfully propulsive harmonica playing, for instance, is pushed forward in the mix, giving his songs a sharp, hungry wail, even as Withrow brings out their melodic beauties with sweet, ringing guitar leads, notably on “Carmichael.” Neil Young purists may disagree, but Winthrow’s treatment lends much of the score a tender, rocking rawness — a paradoxical quality that’s actually quite Youngian. This is precisely the kind of embellishing/editing a smart producer (or in this case, music director) can do with an artist’s work.
Given the presentational style of acting the show requires, the pros — Dubose and Rollin — generally fare better, but then they often have fairly vivid roles. It’s the cameos and the somewhat washed-out female characters who have much less impact. As for the vocal performances, Stefanie Tovar has the best female singing voice by far — she’s one of those small-statured women who can uncork a huge sound when she needs to — while the young males ( Jonathan Brooks, Ian Sinclair and Newton Pittman as an enjoyably slinky Devil) offer a range of satisfyingly raspy, heartfelt, soulful vocals; at times, they actually sound like variations of Young himself.
Still, it all adds up to this surprising irony: With Greendale, the Undermain considerably improves Neil Young’s work musically. But not so much dramatically.