Thursday, April 28, 2011

American Idiot

When is a jukebox musical not a jukebox musical? No, I'm just kidding. American Idiot is definitely a jukebox musical--perhaps moreso than most in that it has practically no book. In a brilliant move, director Michael Mayer decided not to bloat it with cheesy dialogue to detract from the gorgeous people singing fantastic songs, dancing to cool choreography, and basically rocking our faces off. That also keeps the show at just over 90 minutes plus a fun curtain call, which makes it about perfect for adrenaline junkies with short attention spans (or people who are seeing a long-ass show like Jerusalem or The Intelligent Homosexual's ... the same day).

All together, there's less than five minutes of dialogue in American Idiot. Instead of a more traditional style of jukebox storytelling--which is often clumsily tacked onto a score of unrelated songs (Mamma Mia, All Shook Up)--Mayer and Green Day frontman and lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong give a sketch of character arcs for the leads (and a blank canvas for the large ensemble) and let them stand in for a whole generation of angry, aimless, impulsive youth desperate to break out of tiny towns and meaningless lives but unsure how. In the meantime, they settle for anything that gets their blood pumping: music, sex, drugs, fighting. It's a visceral show, aimed at the gut more than the head, and if the lyrics sometimes don't quite match up to the already thin plot (Extraordinary Girl???), no one cares much because the songs are damn catchy, and there are a million other details vying for attention.

I've seen this show an excessive number of times. Truly. And I'll see it again when the tour comes through Boston. The performers have been almost universally fantastic (late replacements for Will, Tunny, and St. Jimmy aside). And the set design, projections, and dances are so overwhelming that I could probably never see everything no matter how many times I might go. I love seeing what the understudies, who've had such different voices, bring to the songs gorgeously arranged by Tom Kitt. The added strings and the strength of so many great voices makes them so lush. I'll never get tired of the cast recording, even if it's overproduced and pop-sounding compared to the raw live show.

The show has been full of fantastic dancers, too (Leslie McDonnell, Declan Bennett, Andrew Call, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Gerard Canonico, and Mikey Winslow in particular), who performed the crap out of choreography that is perfectly matched to the style and energy of the show. I was sitting at Junior's splitting a slice of devil's food cheesecake with a friend after the show a few months ago and I mentioned how much I love the choreography. He said he didn't think there was much to it, which surprised me, but he admitted that West Side Story-style dancing would definitely have felt wrong. I love how Steven Hoggett exaggerates and smooths out the movements of kids who hang out in convenience store parking lots looking for trouble and turns it into (often-concussive) dance. The posturing in picking a fight with other kids killing time at the 7-11 and the struggle between new parents Will and Heather as she moves out are perfect. And the bombing dance, combined with actual night-vision footage from Iraq, is stunningly brutal. (I look forward to comparing it to the movement he created for the war scenes in Black Watch.) There's also a flying scene. (No, really.) My friend hadn't really considered any of that to be choreography, which I think speaks to how organic it feels to the music and the characters.

That bizarre flying scene is a duet between Extraordinary Girl (originally played by the golden-voiced Christina Sajous) and Tunny (originated by Stark Sands, the only one I've seen who's been up to the role). I get that it's a dream sequence, but even so it just doesn't belong in the show. EG glides down in a burka, which she then removes piece by piece, like a stripper, to reveal a midriff-baring I Dream of Jeannie outfit. Then they fly around (him in his hospital gown) singing the song Extraordinary Girl, which has lyrics that are probably the worst fit in the show (war is definitely not an ordinary world, the song mentions Whatsername, whom EG and Tunny have never met, etc.). It's a great song and flying is fun(!) but, like 3-D for movies, just because you can put something in your show doesn't mean you should.

The show itself is great, but the choices by director Mayer and casting director Jim Carnahan (who both also handled Spring Awakening) deserve much of the credit for Idiot's success. Individually he found the best people for each role (regarding the original cast), and their chemistry together was palpable. I really am in love with most of this cast (ensemble included) and can't wait to see what they do next. (Below the jump, I go on at length about the cast, especially Michael Esper and Tony Vincent, and talk about their other projects.)

As the central character of Johnny aka Jesus of Suburbia, Johnny Gallagher was great, as always, playing a disaffected but charismatic young man (as always--including his current role in Jerusalem on Broadway), and his singer-songwriter voice is a good match for Green Day's quieter songs (though replacement Van Hughes was an excellent choice). Sands and Rebecca Naomi Jones (brilliant in Passing Strange) sounded great and brought so much energy to the show. Josh Henry was mesmerizing in the small but charming role of Favorite Son. (I loved him as a Benny understudy in In the Heights and as the lead in the short-lived Scottsboro Boys (for which he is nominated for a Tony), and he will be starring with Audra McDonald in Porgy and Bess at the A.R.T. in August). I loved Mary Faber as Heather (and she was great as the floozy in The Corn is Green at the Huntington in Boston a while back, and perfect as Hilary Faye in the otherwise mediocre musical based on the movie Saved off-Broadway; I haven't seen her in the current Broadway production of How to Succeed ... with Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe.) Some of the cast are also excellent musicians. Gallagher is apparently working on his first CD, and Declan Bennett (ensemble/Will understudy) has just released record:BREAKUP. As much as I love all those performances, though, for me the show will always belong to Tony Vincent and Michael Esper.

As St. Jimmy, Vincent was a revelation--no matter how many times I saw him perform, I couldn't look away, even with all the flashing projections and jumping around going on elsewhere. His acting in the role was perfect, and his voice is stunning. I suspect he could sing the encyclopedia and I'd listen to it all the way through at least once. (As the featured vocalists, he and wife Aspen Vincent were the only good things about the Dirty Dancing tour--shut up, it was part of my season subscription and I was morbidly curious--and I even checked out his old Christian alternative/pop songs, which at least sounded very pretty). I know they're planning a movie of this, and although it would never get made without Armstrong playing St. Jimmy, it breaks my heart that Vincent won't be in the role because he was perfect in every way.

There have been many St. Jimmy replacements, most notably Armstrong himself, who was a bit disappointing in his original one-week run back in October but really grew into a great performer (for this role, at least) when he came back in January. And when he came back again in the final weeks, it was completely his show (for better and for worse). Chase Peacock was fantastic as an understudy, and I would have been happy for him to have taken over the role (he was also great as a Johnny understudy). Joshua Kobak was good, and definitely put his own spin on the character. P.J. Griffith and Andrew Call didn't quite have the necessary charisma to command the stage in the role (though Call's dancing is so, so good). I thought casting a woman as StJ was an interesting choice (Pink would have been perfect), but Melissa Etheridge is way too old for the part, is a terrible actor, and had no command of the stage (she sounded fantastic, at least). Worst of the bunch by miles was AFI singer Davey Havok, who was completely embarrassing to watch and sounded pretty awful too.

And now I will expound my love for Michael Esper. Sorry, but as you might have noticed in my review for iHomo, I just can't help it. In Idiot, he took a character who basically sits silently on a couch for most of the show and turned it into the most fleshed-out performance on stage. He started out as the least angry of the three leads, living with his girlfriend and drinking a lot of beer and smoking a lot of pot with his friends. Sure, he was excited about going off to the big city with Johnny and Tunny, but it seemed to be about his love of music (and his friends) more than the general malaise Johnny felt or Tunny's overwhelming rage. Over the course of the show, you see Will's world close in on him as he compares his homebound life and looming responsibilities with the exciting reports Johnny sends of life in the big city. He gets (silently) tetchy with his girlfriend, growing distant as he instead clings to his guitar, his bong, and his stand-in buddies. Esper conveyed all that through his subtle changes in body language, with his smoky voice backing those moods through a few key songs (Give Me Novocaine was heartbreakingly gorgeous and Too Much Too Soon was satisfyingly explosive). His dancing, too, was perfectly pitched to Will's evolving mood--somehow the character bled through even as he performed the same choreography as the rest of the cast.

His other physical tics (grabbing at his shirt in frustration, the way he touched his friends, even the way he made out with Heather) were clearly so organic, and when American Idol alum Justin Guarini took over the role and copied many of those movements, they came across as unmotivated, lackluster blocking (though probably still better than he would have done developing it on his own, judging from his ridiculous facial expressions). Again, what thrills me most about watching Esper in anything is how specific his characters are, how every gesture he makes is so grounded in that character, that no movement ever feels false, and that he never holds anything back. And I'm impressed by how he changed it up every night. The bit he did with his friends on the couch watching Favorite Son on TV (and parodying his actions) is one of the funniest things I've ever seen on stage, and it quickly became my favorite part of the show because I didn't want to miss anything new (such as whipping out an enormous dildo during his last performance, which would take a whole other paragraph to explain). Esper's characters are achingly real, and he brings nothing but heartache and joy and the whole truth to the stage each time.

Most of the cast left their sweat and souls out there on the stage every night. That energy paired with the fantastic music, choreography, and wicked cool projections make the show one that (as long as you like the songs) never gets stale. Closing night was a hootenanny, complete with an hour-long set by Green Day after curtain call, with the cast onstage often singing along and even doing the dances that go along with some of the songs. It was a fantastic night and a great send-off, more sweet than bitter because the national tour is coming up.

left to right: Will (Michael Esper), Tunny (Stark Sands), Johnny/Jesus of Suburbia (John Gallagher Jr.)
Photo credit: Paul Kolnik

Mike Dirnt of Green Day and cast partying on stage. (Sorry for the crappy phone shot.)

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