Critique of the Week – Runner Up

I picked this one because the inner conflict in Paul’s review is palbable. He didn’t really want to like this but he just couldn’t help himself.

Paul Hodgins – OC Register

“American Idiot” captures all the strengths and weaknesses of the music that propels it.

Based on the 2004 Green Day album of the same name, it’s a true rock opera, bursting with the bristling emotional energy and painful yearnings that have distinguished the Bay Area punk band from countless others since its inception 25 years ago.

Are the characters drawn with a roller brush? Of course. Is this story about youthful alienation, hell-raising, sin and redemption particularly new? No. It’s a tale that every generation tells in its own way. The template remains the same; only the names change.

But that doesn’t stop “American Idiot” from connecting on a primal level with anyone who’s ever cursed their parents, dreamed big or despised their bland suburban upbringing. In other words, most of us.

A national touring production brings the musical back to California, where it was born in 2009 before it made a splash on Broadway and garnered ecstatic reviews from hard-to-please critics. It’s playing now at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles and moves to Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts in May.

Directed by Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening”), who co-wrote the book with Green Day’s lead singer and most recognizable member, Billie Joe Armstrong, “American Idiot” is clearly the work of a fan. Mayer fell in love with the album when he heard it and was convinced it could make a compelling musical because of its loosely narrative concept. With the help of a few songs from the band’s next release, “21st Century Breakdown,” and some liner notes from “American Idiot,” Mayer got all the material he needed to spin his tale.

As noted, it’s a familiar one. Johnny, Will and Tunny (Van Hughes, Jake Epstein and Scott J. Campbell), three disaffected teens from a nameless American suburb, itch for some excitement in their lives.

Johnny, their leader, is a self-styled rebel with grandiose visions of himself. “I’m the son of rage and love, the Jesus of Suburbia,” he sings to us.
But Johnny is self-aware and honest enough to share that his bad-boy image is a pose. At first he tells us that he “held up my local convenience story to get a bus ticket” to the big city. Then he gets confessional: “Actually, I stole the money from my mom’s dresser … actually, she lent me the cash.”

That’s the last moment of clear-eyed self-assessment from Johnny for a while. He and sullen Tunny head off to fulfill dreams of glory. Will stays behind to do the right thing: support his pregnant girlfriend Heather (Leslie McDonel). He sinks into the couch-cushion prison of the accidental father-to-be, using his bong water to slake the thirst of choked-off ambition.

The city contains all the usual distractions and pitfalls. Johnny gets sucked into a carnival of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, meeting a goth-y drug pusher named St. Jimmy (Joshua Kobak) and a sexy party girl (Gabrielle McClinton) on the way. (The character is called Whatsername, which tells you all you need to know about Johnny’s addled state of mind.)

Meanwhile, Tunny never finds his groove in Johnny’s world. He’s drawn instead into the military. In “Favorite Son” he succumbs to the dazzle of a hard-core recruiter in an era of confusion and urgency (“American Idiot” takes place during the early years of W’s presidency, and explosive images of the Iraq War, interspersed with paranoid slogans such as “If You See Something Say Something,” are splashed across the many video screens on Christine Jones’ darkly moody dive-club set).

Eventually, all three of these wildly flawed man-boys find a form of fractured redemption, but the journey is painful and full of tragedy and setbacks. Surprisingly, the story ends with a conservative sentiment: that happiness can only be found at home, with your friends and family in their proper places.
Some might grumble that it’s hard to give a hoot about this hapless trio. Their women seem to have more at stake and appear infinitely more caring and mature. (In this production, it’s the female performers who make the biggest impression, particularly the gifted McClinton. McDonal has a brief but electrifying solo moment that makes you wish her character had more to do.)

And parts of this story are undeniably derivative. The damaged Johnny-Whatsername relationship seems ripped from “Rent,” and the effects of war on a tight-knit group were the driving force behind “Hair.”

But there’s no denying the melodic craft or emotional intensity of Green Day’s songs, and this rambunctious cast captures the group’s performance energy brilliantly (Hughes’ resemblance to the kohl-eyed Armstrong is no mere coincidence, and he shares the front man’s raffish charm).

Steven Hoggett’s gritty, pedestrian choreography meshes perfectly with the music, and an excellent onstage band led by keyboardist Jared Stein performs with the requisite vigor.

But give most of the credit for this show’s success to Mayer. In his brilliant “Spring Awakening,” the 51-year-old director proved he could dramatize youthful rebellion without falling into the usual traps of the genre, callowness and maudlin emotionalism. With “American Idiot,” he brings his specialty to a new and even more impressive level.

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Colin Mitchell About the Author: COLIN MITCHELL: Actor/Writer/Director/Producer/Father, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, Broadway veteran, Marvel comics scribe, Van Morrison disciple, Zen-Catholic, a proud U.S. Army Brat conceived in Scotland and born in Frankfurt, Germany, currently living in Los Angeles and doing his best to piss off as many people as possible.

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