Green Day’s American Idiot Merges Punk Rock with Broadway – Perfectly

Posted: May 1, 2014 by The Life in All, Broadway, Show Review, Theatre
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What do you get when you mix punk rock with Broadway? That question sounds like the setup of a cheesy joke that you might hear on an elementary school playground. Taking the question at face value, it couldn’t sound much more ridiculous as a premise. The two styles of performance art are almost never mentioned in the same breath. The audiences of each style also could not be any more different either. All that being said, What DO you get when you mix punk rock and Broadway?

I went into DPAC with a set of expectations for the show that were rooted in my love of Green Day and my inexperience with Broadway. I was of the mindset that the music from Green Day’s American Idiot album would be watered down or otherwise dulled to make it fit Broadway. I knew that Billie Joe and the guys all got music credits for the show, but I felt that there was no way that the power and angst of such an angry album could be turned into a musical and still retain its original traits.

I had also been told by others who are more versed in the world of Broadway that this show was, “not going to be very good.” That sentiment was followed up with, “it’s a concert pretending to be a musical.” Needless to say, I was not expecting very much as I sat in my seat waiting for the show to start.

When the show begins, the first of the senses to be engaged is your hearing. Before the curtain goes up you can hear the sounds of someone aimlessly channel surfing. The sounds are of the nightly news, cartoons, reality TV, and anything else that can be found. Whoever has the remote control is clearly bored and searching for something to excite him.

Once the curtain rises your sense of sight is then aggressively engaged. The set is almost more than you can take in at a glance. There is the façade of a building complete with a functioning fire escape. Mounted to the façade are 20 or more television screens of varying sizes all jumping from image to image. There are lighting trusses that are aimed directly at the audience that are flashing with colors that complement the sounds and images on the screens.

The cast is seen milling around the stage almost aimlessly. Center-stage sits a bed with a young man sitting on the edge; he appears to be the channel-surfer. After about 10 more seconds of surfing, the man on the bed jumps to his feet and the band immediately starts playing some of the hardest punk rock you will ever hear.

The young man, Johnny, is now jumping around the stage thrashing like he is in the most intense mosh pit ever. The lead guitar is screaming, the bass guitar thumping, the drums are thunderous. The music is as hard and as intense as any concert that you would ever want to go to. The screens that are built into the set are all showing images that are almost too fast to appreciate. The light effects from the trusses are as intense and rapid fire as the music, almost blinding to the unprepared. All of this stimulation bombards you before you ever hear the first lyric.

Once Johnny belts out those first lyrics, “Don’t want to be an American idiot” you realize that this Broadway musical has some very real edge to it. As the rest of the cast joins in on the performance of the song you feel the power and angst of the music. Each delivers their individual part with strength and a rage. The ensemble takes the stage and begins a set of choreographed moves that is probably more appropriately called, synchronized moshing and head-banging.

After the first musical number was complete all of my fears about a dulled or weakened American Idiot were gone. The first number was no fluke either, the remainder of the show ran with the same intensity and power all the way through. Songs that were favorites from the album like; Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Know Your Enemy, 21 Guns and Holiday are performed in a way that added to the songs and, dare I say, improved on them. Songs like Are We the Waiting, Give me Novacaine, and Letterbomb were given real emotional depth that will be hard to forget as well.

The central lead of Johnny was played by Alex Boniello. He was making his tour debut on this particular night. That should mean there is some drop-off in ability since he is an understudy right? Dan Tracy was in the role of Tunny and Casey O’Farrell played Will. The central cast was rounded out by Olivia Puckett as Whatsername, Mariah MacFarlane as Heather, Carson Higgins as St Jimmy, and Taylor Jones as Extraordinary Girl. All of them gave justice to the music they were performing and stayed true to Green Day’s work.

As amazingly powerful as the music is, American Idiot is a show that relies more heavily on seeing the story instead of hearing the story. Hearing the music of the show on its own can tell a story that is at times compelling and emotional, but on its own is shallow. The light design by Kevin Adams, scenic design by Christine Jones, video/projection design by Darrel Maloney, and choreography by Steven Hoggett add a visual experience that makes the story feel significantly deeper than what the lyrics of the music provide on their own.

The light design invokes so much emotion as you hear the music that it accompanies. As the colors change and the strobes flash you are given a sense of what the song wants you to feel through the eye. During the song Give me Novacaine, the lighting is dimmed and a strobe is used to compliment the choreography meant to depict Tunny, Dan Tracy, being severely wounded in battle. As the scene comes to its completion and you see Tunny being carried from the battlefield a feeling of fear and loss is hard to escape.

The scenic and the video/projection design complement each other in a way that makes the world on the stage feel huge. The building façade that is primary set piece, with the embedded TV monitors, is dynamic and moving when it needs to be active and engaging. The same backdrop effectively portrays a rundown apartment, peaceful suburbs and a violent warzone, at times simultaneously. When the physical structures on stage were not able to support the song effectively, dynamic projections took over. During Holiday and Boulevard of Broken Dreams, the projections that are used give the stage performance a truly cinematic feel. The building façade that was so engaging and powerful seconds earlier was virtually invisible and subservient to the projection of a city street or skyline.

Another area where the show really makes a mark is in the choreography, blocking, and physical acting. None of the choreographed movements or routines are overly complicated, or even rhythmic. What they are is eye-catching and emotional. As you watch each cast member move about the stage you can see the anguish, anger, and frustration that each character feels. The realism that is used is also a major point in the overall visual impact of the show. The two sex scenes will the cross the line for some viewers and the blunt depictions of heroin use will also catch some off-guard. But as a whole, when the musical and visual acting components are working together the story is instantly deeper and richer.

My original question was, “what do you get when you mix punk rock with Broadway?’

The answer:

You get Green Day’s American Idiot, a musical that has all the grit and balls of the hit album that spawned it. You get a show that is almost cinematic in its visual appeal and close to overpowering with its musical punch. You get an emotional roller coaster than travels the spectrum of negative emotions felt by the youth of today. You get shocked and enthralled at the same time.

If you are a “theatre snob” that thinks that the only form of Broadway shows that are worth seeing are golden-age style musicals, which American Idiot is not, then PLEASE carry on with your ignorance. I am begging you, skip this show! The rest of us that are open to seeing and experiencing new things will gladly snatch up that ticket you are leaving behind! I plan to see American Idiot over and over again!

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