Don't wanna be an American Idiot (but it sure looks like fun!)

A chilly (okay, freezing cold) March afternoon found yours truly in the balcony of the St. James for the fourth preview of American Idiot, the self-proclaimed "exhilarating story of a new generation of young Americans as they struggle to find meaning in a post-9/11 world, borne along by Green Day's electrifying score." I've been keeping tabs on the show since its run at California's Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and can remember the Christmas I received Green Day's "American Idiot" album, so I was somewhat familiar with the music and its message going into the show. Since the show's New York premiere on Wednesday night, however, I had avoided all reviews, photographs, and footage from the final sound check like the plague, wanting to be completely surprised by the theatrical version of the album.

Walking down the many flights of stairs after the 90-minute, intermission-less show, my initial thoughts pretty much consisted of, "WOW." The intensity of the show is like nothing I've ever seen; right from the title song, which opens the show, the music is loud, rockin', and in-your-face. The visuals of the show are stunning; Kevin Adams uses strobe lights and bright, bold colors to illuminate the stage and audience. Perhaps my favorite scene visually was "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," when the character of Johnny is positioned at the center of the stage and surrounded with the swirling lights of city buildings. The television sets, which are plastered along the back wall of the set, are used effectively but subtly; I only noticed them when I was supposed to, and didn't find them distracting in the least, as I have with electronic projections in past shows I've seen.

The choreography, by newcomer-to-Broadway Steven Hoggett, is physically rooted in the characters' emotions. I enjoyed watching the ensemble members doing their own individual actions at various locations across the stage, and then seeing them all come together in a choreographed moment for the entire group. The movements of the uniformed soldiers during the end of "Give Me Novocaine" were incredibly moving, and the play between some of the ensemble members in suits and some in street clothes during "Homecoming," as well as the aerial dance between Tunny and the Extraordinary Girl in "Extraordinary Girl," also stood out to me.

Tom Kitt should be extremely proud of his orchestrations. He has taken an album of songs that feature two or three vocalists at the most, and translated them perfectly for an entire ensemble. The transitions that connect several of the songs are also absolutely gorgeous, and don't let the momentum of the show slow down unless it is called for. We spotted Mr. Kitt taking his seat in the side balcony just before the curtain rose, taking notes throughout the show, which was quite thrilling; we were determined to approach him at the stagedoor to express our admiration of his work, both in American Idiot and Next to Normal, but couldn't find him after the show.

The music itself, and the actors who perform it, are by far the strength of the show, especially since dialogue is minimal. It's been nearly three years since I watched John Gallagher, Jr. win his Tony Award for Spring Awakening, and I admire him as an actor and musician almost beyond anyone else, so it was a privilege to finally see him perform. Although I found myself disliking his character (ironically, also named Johnny) at the beginning of the show, Mr. Gallagher gives an incredible performance, and some of the best moments of the show feature just him and his guitar under a single spotlight. Stark Sands as Tunny was also fantastic. In my opinion, his character has the biggest arc to work with, and he did a fantastic job with the material. His voice was a standout to me as well. Michael Esper as Will didn't have a lot to do, although he was onstage for a large portion of the show, and he really shone with his vulnerability in "Give Me Novocaine."

I was expecting both Tony Vincent and Rebecca Naomi Jones' roles to be larger (although the 30-something Tony fan girl sitting next to me didn't seem to mind...), but they each blew the roof off the theater every time they were onstage. Mr. Vincent's St. Jimmy is electric and absolutely terrifying as Johnny's tormentor, with a killer rock voice to boot. Ms. Jones carries the same power she displayed in Passing Strange, and her dominating voice knocked me over during "21 Guns" (which, in the context of the show, had an entirely different significance that I had imagined) and "Letterbomb."

The ensemble is absolutely chock-full of talent. Spring Awakening alums Brian Charles Johnson and Gerard Canonico each get their individual moments in the spotlight (Gerard has the honor of kicking off the entire show with his solo in "American Idiot"). After missing Theo Stockman by one day in Hair, I finally understand everyone's love for his fierceness; he completely owns his sections in "Holiday" and "Too Much Too Soon," and has a stage presence that is hard to look away from. Other standouts were Mary Faber as Heather, Christina Sojous as the Extraordinary Girl (who begins the show hanging UPSIDE DOWN from the CEILING), and the red-headed Alysha Umphress in the ensemble. It will be very interesting to see how the cast as a whole manages to maintain both their voices and their energy levels through the run of the show, simply because of its intensity.

I'm glad I took the time to reflect on the show before reviewing it, because my initial reaction left me a little bit underwhelmed. As I look back a mere 24 hours later, I realize that I was moved by the show, but in a different way than I had been expecting. I still think that there are some weaknesses in the show, though. The plot is relatively simple to follow, but I felt that it was somewhat underdeveloped, and that the characters themselves were as well. The "lack of book" seems to be a common discussion across various message boards, and while I don't think that adding additional dialogue to the show would necessarily flesh out the characters more without taking away from the flow of the show, I did find two issues that may have affected my emotional connection with the characters until almost halfway through the show:

1. When Green Day's album was released in 2004, I received a copy for Christmas, and have vivid memories of listening to it on repeat on the drive to my grandparents' house. Despite my familiarity, however, I had difficulty understanding the lyrics sung at times. Because of the lack of dialogue, which is mostly delivered by Johnny in the form of a journal-style monologue, nearly the entirety of character development is contained in the lyrics of the songs, so it's crucial to understand every word. Maybe it was my own difficulty in listening to the words as descriptions and not simply as punk-rock music that I've heard on the radio a thousand times, but I found it hard to care about the characters' plights until halfway through the show, with the exception of Tunny and Whatsername. Two of my friends who attended the show with me also commented on the need for the sound mixing within the theater to be perfected, which is surely a challenge due to the volume that the rock score demands.

2. As far as balconies go, the St. James's is nothing to complain about, especially in comparison to huge houses like the Palace Theater, or the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh. Like most of the Broadway theaters that I've been in, the building is designed more vertically than horizontally, so while my seat was quite high above the stage, I wasn't extremely far back from it. But the downside of all balconies is that viewers are rarely close enough to see facial expressions and the more intimate details of an actor's performance.

So, I am very eager to return to American Idiot, either toward the end of its previews or after the show officially opens on April 20. But first, I'm going to familiarize myself more with the lyrics, and I'm going to plan on lottoing for a seat in the first two rows of the theater. I'm always appreciative of a show that challenges me, and American Idiot definitely has, both in its political statements and its demands on the audience to look to a more interpretive style of characterization, and American Idiot definitely has a dynamic that is rocking and shocking Broadway.


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