Thursday, May 10, 2012
Theater review: American Idiot at Winspear Opera House in Dallas
This production clearly shows why we should be so thankful that the art of theater was ever created.
The rock/pop/rap/country/disco genres of music and Broadway seem to have a love/hate relationship over the years -- from the appreciation, or lack of, from its audiences to the critical response of the New York gaggle of theater critics. You have such an eclectic potpourri of theater goers walking into those Broadway houses -- from rich, snobbish patrons, to the generic cookie cutter middle-class visiting the big city, to foreigners from all countries and nationalities. Then there are the diehard theater fans. The members of this “tribe” consist of people who are involved in theater (either in front or behind the curtain), and finally the hard core New Yorkers who love the theater.
Meanwhile you have the New York batch of theater critics. Most of them are over 50 and white. And let’s face it -- I’m sure most of them are not listening to the latest Lady Gaga, Foo Fighters, or Maroon 5 CD.
These genres of music that are transformed into a Broadway musical have Herculean hurdles to overcome in pleasing both the audience and the critics. These musicals can either become a smash hit or sadly close. Alas, they cake the Great White Way with this dust of failure, mixing in with the other ghosts of failed attempts at making rock/pop music into a stage musical.
A very select group of rock musicals do become hits from both audience and critical response. But only a very (and we mean VERY) select few end up making Broadway history and become landmark musicals for others to try to achieve that same sort of critical acclaim and glory. One such hit is Jonathan Larsen’s masterpiece Rent. When it hit Broadway in 1996, it shook Broadway like a gargantuan earthquake, forcing them to look at rock/pop music in a whole new way. Rent was labeled revolutionary and history making in its artistry and musical score. It won every award possible, received an avalanche of critical praise, and ran close to 6,000 performances. No other rock/pop musical before or since has reached that lofty level of glory and success.
There have been other critically acclaimed rock/pop musicals, such as the magnificent productions of Spring Awakening, Hairspray, Tommy, and Jersey Boys. There was also the jukebox musical sensation Mamma Mia. But alas many have failed, such as Taboo, Ring of Fire, Saturday Night Fever, Footloose, Leader of the Pack, Baby It’s You, All Shook Up, and the list goes on and on. In Broadway’s past there have been a few hits, such as Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (country). But even the original production of Jesus Christ Superstar flopped on Broadway. A million factors go into what will make a rock/pop musical a major hit. But as of today, not one has achieved the success of Rent.
In 2010, the punk band Green Day and director Michael Mayer (who helmed Spring Awakening) joined together to tackle Broadway with American Idiot. This musical adapted its score from Green Day's concept album of the same name, but the score also included other songs from within their own musical catalogue. It first premiered in 2009 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre where it became the biggest selling hit in BRT's history, resulting in the show being extended twice.
American Idiot arrived on Broadway at the St. James Theatre in April 2010. Reports in the Gotham press stated the show cost between $8 million and $10 million to produce. After six months of performances, the show was "still a ways off from possibly turning a profit" according to a New York Times report. During the run of the show, Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong took over the role of St. Jimmy, which boosted box office sales. Side fact here: Tony Vincent, who originated this role, recently competed on the NBC TV reality hit show, The Voice. Vincent made it to the battle runs only to be sadly eliminated from going into the live telecast battles.
When the Tony Award nominations were announced, American Idiot received three nominations including Best Musical. It won two (Best Scenic and Best Lighting Design). It was not eligible for Best Original Score because less than 50% of it was written for the stage production. The original cast recording won a Grammy Award for Best Cast Album. American Idiot went on to run for 422 performances, closing in April 2011.
The book used Green Day’s music to build its story, which centers on the friendship of three best friends, Johnny, Will, and Tunny, post 9-11. Stuck in dead end “Jingle Town” USA, they have no real lives, no goals, no ambition or purpose. So they decide to leave it to go to the big city. But before they can board the Greyhound bus, one is forced to stay behind. Another tries to find love and meaning for himself in the city, while the third one heads off to the Iraq War. It is the progression of their lives on these vast, different paths that makes up American Idiot.
Let’s get the one major problem with the show out of the way. The live punk band is there on stage along with the cast. While they do sound amazing, they are so loud they cover up the voices of the performers. This occurs a lot within the production. We know as an audience that the lyrics are very important to tell us what they are feeling, saying, or doing. But due to the overpowering band playing at full force, we lose so much by not being able to hear the lyrics. The drummer badly needs to be encased in Plexiglas like most drummers are in stage musicals. Don’t misunderstand me, I think they kick major ass with their incredible musicianship. Green Day would be very flattered by how great they play. But alas, it is too loud and we miss so much in understanding the lyrics, especially since there is so very little book to speak of.
There are moments from his direction and staging that Michael Mayer still has Spring Awakening fresh on his mind. He uses similar ideas such as a live band on stage, including a cello, the use of fluorescent lighting, and having a unique choreographer on his production team. The staging and blocking do have remnants of scenes and numbers that remind you of Mayer’s Spring Awakening. This is not a bad thing, as I happen to think Spring Awakening was phenomenal when I saw it on Broadway.
But Mayer also has created a ton of fresh, heart-throbbing, mind-blowing staging that is so raw, graphic, honest, and slathered in realism that it punches deep into your senses. Some are utterly magical while other scenes leave you speechless. There are several scenes and numbers that are staged and directed with such incredible raw, organic reality -- it will leave ice cold chills going down your spine. I won’t divulge them for you in this review for you should be taken as surprised as I was. Mayer’s direction and staging for American Idiot is musical theater euphoria!
Steven Hoggett’s choreography does take some time to “get” what he is trying to say with his dance creations. It looks like controlled chaos mixed with synchronized mosh pit dancing. The choreography is not typical razzle-dazzle Broadway but instead has an aura of being at a non-stop rave. It is not difficult, intricate choreography, but more contemporary and organic -- with head banging and body spasms -- and it fits like a leather glove over the music and direction.
Christine Jones' Tony Award-winning scenic design is flawless. The central piece is a massive, towering, industrial looking back wall that is covered in an endless sea of LED/plasma screens. Throughout the show, Darrel Maloney’s video/projection design is a plethora of images and videos that splatter across the screens to not only help push the story along but also add a delicious, intense layer of subtext, as these images/videos comment on what the cast is singing or doing onstage. The set does look a tad like Rent’s scenic design of grey, grunge like, decaying walls with lots of scaffolding. But Jones’ and Maloney’s set and video/projection designs really work magically to assist the audience with the action on stage.
The lighting design by Kevin Adams is sublime. Part punk rock concert, part musical theater, he meshes both worlds to bathe the stage in some incredible lighting. In one of the most intense scenes (the bombing of Afghanistan) he covers the stage in the same neon-green lighting that we as Americans saw on TV when they bombed that evening and all we saw were green screens of images and explosions. His use of what I coined myself, “emotional lighting,” is used to outstanding effect here. Many scenes are emotionally enhanced thanks to Adams' powerful lighting design.
This ensemble is Mutha-you know what-AWESOME (yes, I said that with caps!). Their energy is full out, go for the jugular exciting, and they achieve resounding success by doing that. They dance with such force and teenage angst that they almost rip the roof off the Winspear. But what makes this ensemble so powerful is their intense focus and commitment to the story. They are a unified group that is always -- and I mean always -- in the moment. Be it wild teenage excitement on a bus, the ugly reality of drugs, the Iraq War, or so many other scenes, each ensemble member beautifully displays intensity and subtext to carry the audience emotionally through the show. This awesome ensemble consists of Talia Aaron, Krystina Alabado, Gabriel Antonacci, Larkin Bogan, Jennifer Bowles, Matt DeAngelis, Dan Gleason, Kelvin Moon Loh, Jarran Muse, and Okieriete Onaodowan. They are the artistic backbone of this production.
The trio of male leads all gives extraordinary, fantastic performances: Jake Epstein (Will); Van Hughes (Johnny); and Scott J. Campbell (Tunny).
Epstein portrays Will, the friend who must stay stuck back at home due to his girlfriend’s news. Out of the three lead roles alas, Will is not fully fleshed out with a dramatic arc as the other two roles are. Much of the time Will is on the couch on stage and at times completely vanishes from the story. But Epstein doesn’t let the loop holes in the book prevent him from giving a fascinating performance.
It is Hughes as Johnny and Campbell as Tunny that provide the breakout, star-making performances of the evening.
Johnny writes music, forgets to bathe, and is lost in his useless life. So he goes to the big city, falls in love (or does he?) with a girl that he labels Whatshername. But while trying to survive the big city he falls prey to drugs, so much so he creates in his own mind another identity -- the glitter glam, rock star, drug dealer St. Jimmy. Hughes possesses a magnificent rock voice that can belt, screech, and go full throttle on the punk rock anthems like a rock god. But then he is able to sing in soft, tender, tenor vocals for several of Green Day’s most popular ballads such as “Wake Me Up Before September Ends.” Hughes’ acting craft and choices are sensational. He deeply understands the core of his characterization and rubs it into the audience’s face so that you feel his confusion, loss, drug haze, love, loneliness, and, at last, redemption. Hughes is phenomenal as Johnny.
Kobak is St. Jimmy, which in actuality is Johnny’s mental alter ego. St. Jimmy is a punk rock god with glitter eye makeup, cocooned in black leather and topped off with a spiked black Mohawk. Now any role that throws glitter into the air will grab my attention! And St. Jimmy does just that. Except this glitter is more like a drug to entice new customers to try his potions. Think of him as a diabolical, punk apothecary who, like the wicked witch in Oz, seduces his victims into his own special poppy field. Kobak provides a scene-stealing performance with his sinister, frenzy portrayal of this glammed-up drug dealer. His stage presence sparkles and flies all over the stage just like the glitter he throws around, forcing the audience to never take their eyes off of him. His energy is set at full throttle that you hope he won’t explode before your eyes. Kobak wears his characterization like a second skin. He is flawless in this production.
Campbell portrays Tunny, a tall, tattooed, knit cap-wearing teen who is lost emotionally, living in the city with Johnny. All Tunny does is sleep, until he sees a TV commercial about joining the military (using Green Day’s song “Favorite Son”). It is what happens to Tunny while fighting in the Iraq War that has the most powerful, emotional moments of the entire evening. And all that is due to Campbell’s mesmerizing, magnificent performance as this confused, lost teen. Campbell’s acting craft is vividly raw, graphic, and has layer upon layer of realism. There is never a hint of false or fake emotions. Campbell peels deep into the subtext, leaving the audience to see the heart and soul of a teen who went to war. Each time Campbell appears onstage, your eyes go straight to him because of his mega-watt stage presence. Campbell also has one of the best musical numbers staged in a way that will blow your mind. I will say no more except you have to see it to believe it. Campbell gives a staggering, superlative performance that the audience will never forget. Remember his name, I see great things in this splendid actor’s future!
The lone female lead is Heather, Will’s girlfriend, being portrayed by Leslie McDonel. McDonel was in the original Broadway production of American Idiot. She also was in Hairspray on the Great White Way. What is extra special about this talented, raven-haired beauty is that she is a Dallas native who performed all over the DFW area. I caught her brilliant performance as Velma Kelly in Chicago at Plano Repertory Theatre oh so many moons ago. So to see one of our “own” from the DFW theater family on stages on Broadway or in a national tour, you can’t help but feel so much pride for this performer. And you will once you see McDonel’s gut-wrenching performance.
Heather is pregnant and has a boyfriend with no goals or focus. They may have hot, sensual passion for each other, but now they have a child. Two children raising a child of their own. McDonel gets deep into the bone marrow of her character with her superior acting technique. She has some great songs to sing and that is where she opens wide Heather’s heart and soul. Observe McDonel’s interpretation of such songs as “Dearly Beloved,” “Tales of Another Broken Home,” and “Too Much Too Soon.” Thanks to her acting choices we clearly see the pain and heartache that is tearing Heather apart emotionally. McDonel bleeds out this subtext that makes the audience feel immense empathy for her. With superior results, McDonel holds her own with the trio of leading boys. Her performance is a must see!
Completing this outstanding cast is a trio of magical, memorable, radiant performances. They are Gabrielle McClinton as Whatshername, Jarran Muse as the poster boy for the military in the number “Favorite Son,” and Nicci Claspell as the Extraordinary Girl.
American Idiot is very adult-themed. This is no Beauty and the Beast for the kiddies! But this production clearly shows why we should be so thankful that the art of theater was ever created. The creators, production team, and cast have smashed hard the mirror that these artists are holding up to the faces the audience. They force us to face the reality of our world -- of ourselves. To look deep within ourselves to ask, “Did I accomplish anything with my life?” To see the unraveling of love, friendship, and hope in our lives. To view the outcome of what the leaders of our nation are doing to our youth out at war. The mirror that this company of American Idiot is holding is pure theater artistry.
Even if you do not know the entire Green Day music catalogue, the score is remarkable and breathtaking. Heart-pounding grunge and punk mixes with slick, blood-thumping guitar riffs, head-banging drums -- that cello!
American Idiot quenches my artistic thirst for powerful, new, raw, gut-wrenching emotional realism in musical theater. After you have sat through endless recreations of the same, tried and true musicals you almost become dead, zombie like. American Idiot is that piercing light at the end of the tunnel that will not only quench your thirst but will blind you emotionally.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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