There was a palpable charge of electricity running through the seated theater goers waiting for American Idiot to begin. Just before the lights went down, a skinny fellow with spiky black hair entered the house, and the audience applauded enthusiastically. At about the same time, a young blond guy with a pointed Ed Grimley hairdo crossed in front of me to get to his seat. I was wearing sandals, and he admonished the older man accompanying him, “Don’t step on her toesies.” As this was about the nicest thing anyone’s done for me in a New York theater, I smiled and thanked him, so to my mind, we’d bonded. When they sat down next to me, I asked them if they recognized the celebrity who’d gotten such a hand. They both shrugged and said, “Uh…no.” When my companion informed me the big shot was the lead singer for Green Day, I passed along the info to my new friends, and they nodded gratefully. I then received from aforesaid companion some addition intel, and immediately asked my amiable toe sparer, “Are you the Green Day drummer?” He affirmed that he was, and held up his index finger. “OK, I’ll keep it quiet,” I assured him. I had no clue that displaying this digit was a Green Day signature move.
So that’s how I became a true blue American Idiot in an anecdote which will probably live on for some time in Green Day circles.
At the end of the show, my drummer pal leaped over his seat and ran up on stage to join the rest of the band in performing an impromptu rock concert. The audience, already on their feet from the curtain call, went absolutely bonkers, as did the cast on stage. The members of Green Day were all obviously seasoned performers, and skillfully involved everyone in singing along and having a great time. One kid in the cast even gleefully shot video on a little handheld camera.
If you think my relating this tale is a stalling tactic to put off reviewing the show, well, here goes. American Idiot is really, really loud, definitely a two earplug show (I generally only need one). The actors do a fine job, although the clenched fist acting technique made de rigueur by the cast of Rent is not my favorite. Especially noteworthy are Rebecca Naomi Jones (“Whatsername”), Christina Sajous (“The Extraordinary Girl”), and Stark Sands (“Tunny”). John Gallagher, Jr., in the lead role of “Johnny”, never lets his energy flag, and really carries the show. The director is Michael Mayer, who received the 2007 Tony Award for Spring Awakening; this show has a very similar vibe. It’s no coincidence that Gallagher also won a Tony for that show, as Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
There’s not a whole lot of plot, and what there is includes shooting up on stage and simulated sex. As always, extremes on stage tend to destroy the fourth wall, and willing suspension of disbelief goes right out the window.
There’s also a character called St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent), no relation to the theater, but what are the odds? This greaser seems to be metaphorically representing the snake in the Garden Of Eden, although Paradise is nowhere to be found in this play. He wears a wig with a half-shaved head, one lock of long ebony hair cascading down his pallid, creepy face. He is pretty certainly supposed to be a gay predator in addition to being a drug addict and pusher. We can only mourn the fact that Alan Cumming is now too old for what is sure to become a classic role in the annals of American Theater.
Some of the numbers are very successful, particularly “Extraordinary Girl,” which has Sajous and Sands, attached to wires, soaring above the stage. But too much of American Idiot is derivative and tired. Come on, slamming George W. Bush? There’s nothing new about the multi-media screens being used onstage, and there seems to be no good reason for all the furious alienation. Have you ever seen the old movie The Wild One? When asked what he’s rebelling against, biker roughneck Marlon Brando sneers, “What do you got?” For Pete’s sake, that was 1953. Go out and get a job, already.
The upshot is, if you’re a truly rabid Green Day fan, then by all means, sink your teeth into this musical. Otherwise, if you’re interested, just go out and buy the CD American Idiot, sung by the originals.
Caveat: 90 minutes straight through, no intermission.
St. James Theatre
246 West 44th Street
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, International Association of Theatre Critics, Dance Critics Association, and National Book Critics Circle. firstname.lastname@example.org. michalljeffers.com