Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Don't Wanna Be An 'American Idiot,' But I Just Didn't Get It -- Theater Review

Theater Review

American Idiot
a musical with music by Green Day
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 19

I love Green Day.

I have been a big fan and devoted follower of the Bay Area punk trio ever since their phenomenal 1994 album Dookie broke big.

I own all their albums--even those that preceded Dookie and the one they released as Foxboro Hot Tubs--as well as a couple of DVDs.

Considering them to be one of the very best live acts I've ever seen, I feel fortunate to have attended several Green Day concerts over the past 18 years and look forward to my next opportunity.

I stuck with the band even as their popularity ebbed around the turn of the century, but was nonetheless delighted to see them reclaim mass stardom with their excellent 2004 concept album, American Idiot. It stands as one of my favorite records of the 2000s, though to be honest, I appreciate it more as a collection of thematic songs rather than ever truly embracing its rock opera "plotline."

But when the American Idiot stage musical--directed by Michael Mayer, who helmed the sensational Spring Awakening--arrived on Broadway in 2010, I championed the notion of a punk rock musical and noted its generally stellar reviews. The show wasn't a big box office hit in New York--Green Day singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong often took the stage to pump up sales--and I never got a chance to see it, but wished I had.

So I was happy to see the Oriental Theatre full on the national tour's first night in Chicago and coinciding with Charles Dickens' 200th birthday, I went in with great expectations.

Unfortunately, I didn't love American Idiot as a theatrical experience. 

Also coinciding with the 48th anniversary of the Beatles' arrival in America, this Green Day's night was not a 'welcome to paradise.'

Yes, even without Billie Joe, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool, the music rocked. Enough so that I was sufficiently entertained to warrant my subscription-series nosebleed seat that cost just $10.

But even in offering inherent appeal to Green Day fans, as the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones notes in his much more positive review, seeing American Idiot is nowhere near as good as seeing the band itself. (They are said to be working on a new album that will undoubtedly by followed by a tour.) And given my failure to discern any characters or comprehend the storyline--despite knowing almost all the lyrics--I imagine catching a decent rendition of "Longview" at a karaoke bar would be comparably enjoyable.

I won't dissuade ardent Green Day fans from seeing this--and to be fair, my friend Paolo loved it--but any other musical theater fans are likely to be disappointed. A few even walked out during the show. And while not every show can offer the same appeal to everyone, American Idiot failed to offer any discernible degree of universality

Photo Credit: Doug Hamilton
My mom is no great fan of Green Day or hard rock, but has seen and enjoyed Rent, Avenue Q, Billy Elliot and other rock-infused and young-skewing musicals. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend that she see Spring Awakening, Next to Normal or The Who's Tommy. But if I was utterly befuddled by what was happening onstage during American Idiot, I imagine she would be a 'basket case' (not that the show includes that Dookie classic, though its songbook expands forward from the namesake album).

In my recent review of Come Fly Away, the Twyla Tharp "musical" featuring Frank Sinatra songs that felt too much like a dance recital, I acknowledged that I have never been big on interpretive theater. Even in appreciating the originality of form-breaking musicals, I prefer something approximating a traditional book structure.

Perhaps this is a deficiency on my part, but it's important for me to have some inkling of what's going on, rather than having to make sense of a mystifying jumble. And because American Idiot has hints of a narrative that never cogently develops, it's actually more frustrating than Come Fly Away, and not even as satisfying as Thriller: Live, the Michael Jackson musical that is more explicitly just a revue.

Respectful as I am of Green Day as a band that actually has something to say, I really wanted to grasp the profundity of their rock opera. But it far too obliquely seemed to touch the same tentpoles as Movin' Out, another Tharp interpretive dance show using Billy Joel songs, as well as Hair, which is also far too unstructured for my tastes. Namely: youth, friendship, angst, love, pregnancy, war, protest, rebellion, death, resilience and most centrally, music.

Photo Credit: Doug Hamilton
In trying to offer a fair critical assessment for any fan of the theater or even just Green Day, I am probably being too harsh in portraying my disaffection.

I like the music more than enough to have enjoyed the evening on that level. Though I can't cite any cast or band members as being particularly distinguishable, no one was notably bad either.

But if attending American Idiot wasn't as good as seeing the band, listening to their albums or seeing Spring Awakening, Tommy, Rent, Come Fly Away or even Thriller, well...

Let's just say I didn't have the time of my life.

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