Coming home to Jingletown - our return to American Idiot

I'll admit that I can be self-conscious about my taste in musicals. Rent was one of the first shows I ever fell for. Then I discovered Spring Awakening. I also love Hair (to which Hillary and I paid a fond farewell to last weekend - expect a post on that soon). So it seemed natural that American Idiot would be right up my alley, seeing that it follows in the vein of every rock musical ever created.

Returning to American Idiot last Saturday evening, however, made me lose all reservations about enjoying the punk rock musical so much. Just because the cast recording sounds like it could be played on 105.9 The X (Pittsburgh's modern rock radio station) doesn't mean that American Idiot isn't a beautiful piece of theater. Although we had initially planned on seeing Next Fall that evening (they didn't have student rush tickets, unfortunately, and the play closes before we'll get up to the city again), going into American Idiot with only an hour and a half of anticipation probably enhanced the experience of the show.

Although the last time we blogged about American Idiot was back in March, after seeing the show's third preview, last Saturday was actually our third time returning to the St. James Theater (the second being May 1, a date that we didn't blog about for reasons that are quite evident to anyone who Googles "May 1st in Times Square"), and our second time sitting close to the stage. I'll take Hillary's word when I report that the partial view seats offered in the orchestra are fantastic, cutting off only the upper lefthand corner of the stage...and of course, lotto seats in the first two rows of the theater provide for an experience that is 180° different than the next-cheapest seats in the last rows of the balcony. To be honest, I'm glad that my first time seeing the show was from the back of the house, because I really did enjoy seeing the whole picture of the show. BUT, I'm not sure that I would go back to the nosebleed section of the St. James as anything but a last resort. For me, seeing facial expressions and emotions is too important for a show whose characters could easily come off as stereotypical. After leaving the theater in March admittedly a bit underwhelmed, sitting in the front row confirmed the show as a legitimate piece of theater for me.

American Idiot is also LOUD from the front row - as a show scored by Green Day should be. (Not that it's quiet from anywhere else in the theater...but you get the idea.) Prior to the curtain going up, we sat in our seats and counted the number of speakers stacked up in front of us. (A warning to the faint of heart - the volume level does cause your seat to vibrate if you are sitting that close.) However, the music, played fluidly by the onstage band and several members of the cast on guitar, is not loud for the sake of being loud. It's loud because the emotions conveyed in the songs' lyrics demand attention, and often rage. And the show's quieter songs become infinitely more poignant when the cast has spent 20 minutes rocking out, and suddenly a single cast member steps into the lone spotlight to strum a ballad on his guitar.

At the risk of portraying the show as merely a rock concert, I want to focus on the three leads all at once (mostly so I can avoid turning this solely into a giant love letter for John Gallagher Jr.). As I mentioned before, sitting close to the stage made all the difference in how I perceived the stories told in the show. One of the arguments frequently made against American Idiot is that it has no book, and that the characters are not developed past their stereotypical outlines. The truth in this argument lies in the fact that there is basically no spoken dialogue in the show - but who said the book of a musical has to be composed strictly of spoken word? There is a big difference between listening to a Green Day song on the radio - even if I know what the lyrics are - and hearing it in the context of a show as it's being used to expand the characterizations of Johnny, Will and Tunny, the three lead characters. Once I could take lyrics like "I'm the son of rage and love/The Jesus of Suburbia/From the bible of none of the above, on a steady diet of/Soda pop and Ritalin" and apply them in my mind to the character in front of me, rather than hearing them simply as words to a rock song, I found a LOT more depth in the show, and was able to connect with and feel sympathy towards the characters.

It was only at the curtain call, when John Gallagher Jr. broke into a huge smile, that I realized how flawless his performance was. The way in which he completely transforms himself for the role of Johnny is no small task, since he rarely leaves the stage during the ninety-minute marathon. My admiration for Mr. Gallagher goes well beyond his work in American Idiot, encompassing his solo songwriting career and his Tony Award-winning performance in Spring Awakening as well as his humble nature as a person, and it's a complete honor to watch him on stage. There are so many moments in the show that leave me breathless - "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "Wake Me Up When September Ends," and "Whatsername," to name a few - and the vast majority of them begin with just Mr. Gallagher and his guitar. He takes a cliched suburban teen who sees drugs and rebellion as the only way out, and creates a character who is quite dynamic, despite the fact that Johnny remains in much the same place at the end of the show as where he began.

Michael Esper as Will and Stark Sands as Tunny also do a wonderful job with creating layers for their characters to struggle through. Mr. Esper spends most of the show plopped on a couch that sits downstage right, and while he could allow the character of Will to waste away, Esper's performance has inspired me to want to return to the show and sit directly in front of him so that I can spend the entire hour and a half watching just him. I really loved a recent interview I found, in which Mr. Esper discusses his role:

YRB: Your character spends much of his timing sitting on stage. How do you approach that when everyone else is able to channel such high energy with their roles?

Michael: It’s certainly hard in that I lay on the couch since, like, the second number and stay there through almost the entire show while everybody else is having this incredibly active experience. And while I have a different kind of activity on the couch, trying to sort through all the problems that arise from being stuck, it’s definitely hard to not participate. But that’s what Will is experiencing, that’s what my character is feeling and he doesn’t get to do those things, and that’s the same problem that he’s facing. Even though I’m stuck on the couch, I try and make those moments as active as I possibly can so that I’m not just sitting back depressed the entire time.

Mr. Sands' performance makes it hard for me to believe that this is just the first musical he's done on Broadway. (Thanks to an anonymous commenter for the correction!) As evidenced by a quote from an article that I (of course) can't locate at the moment, he is an actor first, and that's a huge benefit for his character, who arguably has the most material to work with. Tunny's journey takes him from feeling trapped in suburban Jingletown, to being seduced by the military's Favorite Son, to losing a part of himself, both literally and metaphorically. Watching his struggle to recovery is one of the more nuanced performances I've had the fortunate to see. And his voice is pure gold.

A review of American Idiot wouldn't be complete without a nod to Tony Vincent, who plays St. Jimmy. At the risk of making this review painfully long, I'll say this - I personally don't see Mr. Vincent's performance as more impressive than Mr. Starks' or Mr. Gallagher's, as far as the debate over who should have gotten a Tony nomination goes. However, I do think it would be easy to let St. Jimmy become a one-dimensional character, especially with the physical appearance that Mr. Vincent lends to the role, and his performance is definitely well-thought-out and complex.

I've already gone over the fierceness of both the choreography, orchestrations, and ensemble in my previous review, so I won't recap those again. I do want to end this post with a question for our readers, though.

There is no doubt that Joshua Henry is perfect as the Favorite Son. The more I think about someone other than Mr. Henry playing the Favorite Son, however, the more intrigued I am. When I saw the show the first time, I drew SUCH a strong connection to President Obama during "Favorite Son" - the (very relevant) image that a black man can lead our country and be loved by so many people, and be their "favorite son"...and then there's the interesting feel when he turns around at the end of the song in a military uniform. Interestingly, the understudies for the Favorite Son are Ben Thompson and Andrew Call, both of whom are white, while Mr. Henry is an African-American man.

Disregarding vocal and acting abilities, because all three men are talented and more than capable of tackling the role - do you think that the Favorite Son being played by an actor of a different race puts a different spin on the character and on Tunny's seduction into the military? Please leave your thoughts and comments below!


Anonymous said...

Very nice review.
This is actually not Stark's first musical. He did the regional production of Bonnie & Clyde as his project before this one. However, it is his first on Broadway.
I don't think the race of Favorite Son puts a different spin on the character. I heard that Ben will be going on soon so it would be interesting to heard/read the reviews from that. Unfortunately, Josh will be leaving this month. His replacement, however, is also African-American. So, that racial component seems to present in the director/producers/casting directors minds.

Michelle said...

Thanks for the correction! I'll be sure to edit that :)

Anonymous said...

There were women in this show as well, did you notice ? ;-) How were they ?:-)

Michelle said...

So sorry for the lack of attention to the incredible female performers in the show! Mostly, I wanted to avoid writing a novel, since I think people who stumble across our blog are more likely to read an entry that is somewhat short and concise. Also, to be honest, I don't know if Hillary or I could single one of them out as our favorite - they're all fierce, as evidenced by "Letterbomb"!

I did include a bit about the women in our first post on the show, from back in March, if you care to check that out:

Anonymous said...

Great review! I'm hoping to be able to catch it this summer and reading things like this just make me all the more excited. I was wondering does Michael Esper stay on stage the whole time?? I think he'd be incredibly interesting to watch (at least at the second viewing), but that's just me being dorky.

Michelle said...

Michael Esper does remain on stage for the large majority of the show - off the top of my head, I would say about 98% of the time. And I agree that it would be incredibly interesting to watch him the entire time!

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