Chicago Theater Review: AMERICAN IDIOT (Oriental Theatre)

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by Dan Zeff on February 8, 2012

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


Inspired by a 2004 rock album by the American punk rock band Green Day, American Idiot has received its share of positive reviews since its premiere in Berkeley, California in 2009 and subsequent extended run on Broadway. The rock musical has also received its share of shrugs, especially from patrons who can’t follow the lyrics or the plot (and/or because the music is so loud). People without a clue about the storyline can watch the show as a raw and exciting rock concert: while it is true that many lyrics can’t be understood, there is still pleasure to be gained from the multi-media special effects and the gyrating continuous movement of the ensemble.

Maybe the best strategy for attendees unable to follow the sense of American Idiot is to just let the music and performances wash over them as a sensory high – at 90 minutes, the sustained visceral heat of the touring production is impressive. Even spectators who draw a blank at trying to follow the storyline should be impressed by the show’s high energy and the commitment of its performers. Keeping the action on the boil is director Michael Mayer, who co-wrote the book with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong.

As if we do not lack for plays, musicals, movies and records about youthful alienation, American Idiot explores a year in the lives of three young men who live in a suburban community called Jingletown. Johnny, Will, and Tunny are bored, disaffected, frustrated, resentful, and ready to break out of their stultifying lives, but it’s difficult to sympathize with them as they whine about their dreary existence – they come across as small town layabouts who haven’t earned the right to blame suburbia, or anywhere else, for their angst.

The three friends decide to depart for the big city with money Johnny borrows from his mother, but Will elects to stay behind with his pregnant girlfriend. After arriving in the city, Tunny joins the army, leaving Johnny to go it alone where he drifts into a life of sex and drugs. Johnny eventually recognizes that this lifestyle has no long-range future, so he returns to Jingletown, where he is reunited with Will and Tunny. At the end, Johnny sounds a note of acceptance and hope that his life will get better…kind of a cop-out, touchy-feely ending after all his counterculture rebellion.

The plot is basically a wobbly superstructure on which to hang about 20 songs, most of them adapted from the 2004 album. The majority of them are of the high decibel variety (Brian Ronan designed the ear-blasting sound), but several are actually tuneful, especially those sung to acoustic guitar accompaniment in a pleasing Paul Simon manner. The show itself is almost entirely sung, with just a few brief patches of spoken dialogue.

The action is presented on Christine Jones’ flexible, bare stage, with the musicians surrounding the performers. The back wall is jammed with video screens and lights that periodically issue blinding flashes (Kevin Adams designed the highly dramatic lighting, Darrel Maloney the video and projection). There are seven distinct characters: three young women who interact with the boys and St. Jimmy, a big city drug dealer who leads Johnny astray. A young chorus twirls, twists and rotates inexhaustibly throughout the evening in Andrea Lauer’s (mostly) grungy costumes. Between the video effects and the live performers, this is, visually, a very busy show. There is one terrific specialty number, a dream scene in which Tunny rises from his bed in an army hospital to perform an aerial ballet with his nurse.

Van Hughes stars as Johnny, and he throws himself into the role passionately. The young man must have a throat made of cast iron to deliver so many ranting and belting songs eight performances a week. Hughes’s all-out work sets the tone for the entire cast. Jake Epstein plays Will, Scott Campbell is Tunny, Joshua Kobek is St. Jimmy, and Leslie McDonel, Gabrielle McClinton, and Nicci Glaspell play the three females who connect with the lads. They all meet the intensity demands of the show, along with the chorus. There are no slackers in this ensemble.

Keyboard player Jared Stein leads the six-musician rock band. The other musicians include two guitarists, a bass player, and a drummer, all playing with trademark rock ‘n’ roll volume. The playbill also lists a cello player. I missed that subtle instrument in the cacophony of the others, but doubtless the cellist sawed away with determination and professionalism, if not with audio penetration.

American Idiot attempts to portray the restless and rebellious youth of today, but that’s a cliché that played better in the turbulent 1960’s than 2012 (it would be an embarrassment to compare American Idiot with Hair). The commercial acceptance of this Green Day musical on Broadway suggests that the show struck a chord with mainstream audiences (a surprise rave review in the New York Times didn’t hurt either). It comes down to that old maxim, “If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like.”

photos by Doug Hamilton

American Idiot
Oriental Theatre in Chicago
through February 26
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tours through June 2, 2013
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