Critics often fall into that oft-used “less is more” trope in their work. Just look at any recent Cirque du Soleil review, or pick up any of Michael Riedel’s snark-laden Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark takedowns from last year. Reviewers harp on Glee’s over-the-top production numbers and lazy, hole-ridden plots. Rarely have I seen critics mention the fact that while indeed less can be more, oftentimes more can be a heck of a lot less. Nowhere did that become abundantly clearer than in Thursday night’s performance of American Idiot, a generally thin yet abundantly enjoyable trifle of a show.
Based off of Green Day’s concept album of the same name, Idiot tells the story of Johnny (Van Hughes, fresh from a run in the original Broadway production), a disaffected youth whose definition of rebellion means consistently flipping the audience the bird and overusing the most guttural of swears. Johnny recruits his friends Will (Jake Epstein) and Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) to leave their small town on a Greyhound bus, full of aspirations of bigger and better things that the city might offer.
Lyricist and co-book writer Billy Joe Armstrong, Green Day’s lead singer, does a surprisingly able job splitting the show into engaging subplots. The three leads’ stories quickly split. Johnny finds himself embroiled in a world of drug use and poverty, only to find salvation in Whatshername (the lithe Gabrielle McClinton). It becomes evident, however, that Johnny is in too deep with the mysterious St. Jimmy (Joshua Kobak), whose fading presence leaves the audience questioning his existence. An Adam Lambert-type character, St. Jimmy comes complete with handfuls of glitter and bushels of tourniquets, seductively sugarcoating the wares he peddles.
Meanwhile, Will struggles with the inability to actually leave town in the first place, anchored by a newly-pregnant girlfriend. His depression leads to addiction, which in turn segues right into divorce and a sort of paranoia. It’s hard to sympathize with the lad, since his back-story is entirely cloaked in the sort of plot-summarizing mystery that overtakes the whole show. One can’t help but think that Armstrong may have found himself in this situation, but it’s up to the audience to supply this outside knowledge to the musical.
The third friend, Tunny, turns to the military as a form of escapism after an entrancing number in which a bevy of scantily clad dancers emerge from his television and coerce his participation. He finds himself sans a leg in a drugged-out hospital daze, at which point a fully enshrouded figure descends from the rafters, sheds her clothing, and sweeps the soldier up in a skyward dance set to “Extraordinary Girl” that was both elegantly choreographed and emotionally effective. Tunny’s was the most compelling of stories, successfully telling the story of war free from any agenda other than compassion for its victims.
The plot ambles along aimlessly and carelessly for the rest of the show, much like the character’s ambitions themselves, not quite sure of its conclusion but happy to drag along any passersby in the journey. At certain points, there are gunshots, orgies, more middle fingers than at a middle school dance, and a dizzying display of television propaganda flashing across the set’s TV-stricken backdrop. It’s a lot to take in at once, and that’s exactly what American Idiot wants. In its “in your face” approach, the musical demonstrates the absolutely inconsequential moments of youthfulness, the fleeting glee and struggles we all thought would be the end of us, as mere distractions in the end.
If for nothing else, American Idiot can be lauded for its stellar orchestration and set design. Towers of steel moved around and warped to fit the needs of the cast. At times characters scaled them, and at others they popped out the makeshift windows that transformed the structure into a bus. TVs littered the wall, constantly cycling though recognizable visuals—at points, both the Sham-Wow guy and American Idol made their way to the screens. It’s always difficult to fulfill audience expectations when it comes to playing songs verbatim, but numbers like “21 Guns” and even “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” worked more effectively in a visual setting. Though certain songs were played up to tug at the audience’s deep-rooted emotions (“When September Ends” would make any number of our generation tear up, no?), it worked in the sense that nostalgia dominates the emotions of our youth.
Setting a musical to the sounds of an album that defined a generation (can you believe it’s been eight years since American Idiot was released?) was more than just a marketing ploy; rather, it proved an effective way to tie the emotional heft of the musical to the emotional baggage carried by its audience.