LIVE: “American Idiot” @ Proctors, 2/5/13

American Idiot @ Proctors

Review by Greg Haymes

Ah, a rock musical about disaffected youth searching for an escape – any escape – from the quicksand of bland, mind-numbing suburban life…

“Hair”?

No, “American Idiot,” Green Day’s updated, 21st century interpretation of the same youth rebellion. More desperate, more bleak, but no less brimming over with the frustration and disillusionment of the middle class status quo.

At Proctors in Schenectady through Thursday (February 7) for a short, three-performance run, “American Idiot” is a lot like “Hair” for today’s generation. Replace the peace and love with rage and nihilism. Replace the beads and bellbottoms with t-shirts and hoodies. Replace flower-power anthems with punk-rock angst.

Well, you get the picture…

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Like “Hair,” “American Idiot” is pretty much a sung-through rock opera with minimal dialogue to tie the songs together into anything resembling a coherent plotline.

What little cliched storyline there is follows the three main characters – Johnny (Alex Nee), Tunny (Thomas Hettrick) and Will (Casey O’Farrell) on their coming-of-age journeys. Johnny goes to the big city and gets swept up in a morass of drugs. Tunny enlists in the military and goes off to war. Will gets his girlfriend pregnant and stays behind, doomed to a life full of booze and drugs to chase away the boredom and resentment. All three characters are pretty much one-dimensional, devoid of much emotional depth.

And their three women are so secondary that only one of them has an actual name, Heather (Kennedy Caughell in a strong performance). The others are simply “the Extraordinary Girl” (Jenna Rubaii) and “Whatsername” (Alyssa DiPlama). They did the best the could with what they were given (and Caughell is a powerhouse vocalist), but let’s just say that Billie Joe Armstrong is no Tennessee Williams when it comes to writing strong roles for women.

But like “Hair,” what saves “American Idiot” is the songs – strong songs of rage, rebellion and real rock and roll. The boys from Green Day – Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool – crafted a great bunch of tunes on their 2004 concept album of the same name, and the songs don’t only survive the expected Broadway harmonizing and group choral treatment, they almost seem to thrive on it – especially the sprawling medleys of “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Homecoming,” which pretty much open and close the show. The singing is uniformly solid throughout – with Casey O’Farrell emerging as the strongest voice, especially during his Freddie Mercury-like turn during “Homecoming. And the six-piece onstage band rocked like they meant it, especially bassist Mike Cohen, who maintained the classic wide-spread legs stance stage left whether anyone was watching him or not.

On the downside, the bleach blond mohawk-sporting Trent Saunders as St. Jimmy (the drug dealer/alter-ego of Johnny) has the voice and the presence for the role, but he seemed sorely lacking in the menace and pure malevolence required. And as well-executed as it was, it was damned difficult to determine whether the aerial ballet was supposed to be iconic, ironic or just plain “Peter Pan” gone bad.

Visually, “American Idiot” is a hyper-kinetic, eye-popping spectacle. No need to try to follow the narrative – just sit back and let Christine Jones’ TV-screen-laden stage set, Kevin Adams’ inventive, multi-layered lighting and the sheer power of Green Day’s music wash over you. It’s sheer sensory overload. And by the time it all wraps up with an ensemble finale featuring 16 cast members all banging away on guitars for the “encore” of “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” the overload is clearly in overdrive.

Yes, there are elements of “Spring Awakening” (yes, “American Idiot” director Michael Mayer was at the helm for that one, too), the Who’s “Tommy,” “West Side Story,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Rent” and those gleefully over-the-top Meat Loaf/Jim Steinman collaborations. That’s OK. Every generation needs its own soundtrack to rebellion…

To quote 1953′s “The Wild Ones”:

“Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”

“Whaddaya got?”

“American Idiot” continues its run at Proctors in Schenectady with performances at 8pm tonight (February 6) and Thursday (February 7). Tickets are $20, $45, $60 & $70; student rush tickets are also available at the door.

SECOND OPINIONS
Michael Eck’s review at The Times Union
KC’s review at Keep Albany Boring
Will’s review at Discover Albany
Katie Beltramo’s review at Kids Out and About
Excerpt from Amy Durant’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Proctors’ limited run of the musical may not be for everyone — if you go expecting ‘Oklahoma!’ or ‘Carousel’ you might find yourself walking out after one of the more graphic sex or drug scenes — but it’s a high-energy, beautifully grungy production that, in my opinion, is not to be missed. ‘American Idiot’ is very much a rock opera. There is very little dialogue, and most of the story is told through the music. (If you’re not a fan of the band Green Day, the musical might not be for you.)”

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