Anyone for alienation?
The angry, aimless youth who populate the stage adaptation of Green Day’s “American Idiot” have found their way to Broadway, venting their cynical unhappiness with life in the same theater that once housed such sunny, all-American musical-theater classics as “Oklahoma!” and “Hello, Dolly!”
A permanent state of disaffection runs through this visually striking, musically adventurous take on the 2004 best-selling album that Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and director Michael Mayer have turned into a show.
The musical, which opened Tuesday at the St. James Theatre, is short, some 95 minutes. Just right for an MTV generation weaned on YouTube clips and music videos. “AmericanIdiot,” in fact, plays like one. Wildly diverting to look it, the show has the barest wisp of a story and minimal character development. At best, its slacker guys are sketchy portraits, prototypes rather than real people.
Fortunately, there are compensations, most notably the show’s highly theatrical, punk-rock score, sung by a high-energy cast, headed by John Gallagher Jr. The gifted actor, a Tony winner for “Spring Awakening,” portrays Johnny, the show’s petulant antihero who flees a deadening suburbia and descends into sex, drugs and fierce guitar playing in his quest to find himself in the big city.
That pretty much describes the plot, although there are minimal side trips to delve into the tribulations of the show’s two other confused Musketeers who hope to embark on that life adventure with him.
But Will, played by Michael Esper, gets trapped by his pregnant girl friend (Mary Faber). And the impressionable Tunny (Stark Sands) finds seduction of another sort: a gung-ho military career that has him being shipped off to Iraq where he is wounded.
Johnny, meanwhile, is ensnared by a sexually provocative if nebulous young woman — with the telling monicker of Whatsername — played by a tempting Rebecca Naomi Jones. And then there are the drugs, showered on Johnny by a persuasive dealer named St. Jimmy. As played by a demonic Tony Vincent, the man is hardly beatific, but, boy, can he sing.
And it is the songs — blessed with superb power orchestrations by Tom Kitt (the composer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal”) — that take over when the book fades into an afterthought. The theater score has been fleshed out with several numbers from Green Day’s latest release, “21st Century Breakdown,” including the hit “21 Guns.”
The songs excel at portraying emotion if not plot, and you can see why the “American Idiot” recording was such a success. The catchy Green Day melodies are often hypnotic while Armstrong’s lyrics are big and bold.
Mayer has scattered the potent on-stage band around the playing area, including high up a back wall, created by designer Christine Jones. That wall is studded with video monitors where the vacuity of American life is prominently displayed.
The savvy director is not above a few arresting theatrical tricks, including a “Peter Pan” moment when the wounded Iraq war vet flies — direct from his hospital bed — and spins romantically in an aerial ballet with a lovely hallucination (Christina Sajous).
The show’s chorus is just that — an anonymous band of hardworking kids who throw themselves into the material with abandon.
Fans of the recording most likely will marvel at this theatrical take on “American Idiot.” It will give then a stunning visualization of what they already have on their iPods or CD players. Others might want a little more from the characters who are displaying such all-consuming angst.
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