Saturday, December 31, 2011

Review: (Toronto) American Idiot

Scott J. Campbell (photo credit: Doug Hamilton)

Bells and Whistles signifying...
Is there any there there in American Idiot?
by Axel Van Chee

With more bells and whistles than the biggest Santa’s sled imaginable, American Idiot by Green Day arrives at Toronto Centre for the Arts just in time to ring in the new year. It dazzles with psychedelic colours, exudes an abundance of energy and is unapologetically loud (unlike the Berkeley premiere, ear plugs are not provided). It is also chock-full of the best selling songs from the same-name album to satisfy the most rabid of fans, all superbly orchestrated by Tom Kitt, and performed admirably by the band under Jared Stein. It is also deep down, at the risk of irking all the Green Day fans out there, much ado about nothing.

The result is caricatures of stereotypical disillusioned youths...

The problem with American Idiot, is NOT because of the ensemble cast, which is excellent, but what happens when a story is forced upon pre-existing tunes. The result is caricatures of stereotypical disillusioned youths embroidered in a conventional and thoroughly predictable plot, punctuated by cliché dialogue written by some first-year student enrolled in Creative Writing 101 who wrote them the morning before the assignment is due.

In the program notes, the show is described as “a story of three lifelong friends, forced to choose between dreams and the safety of suburbia.” This is a grossly inaccurate account of what actually occurs considering the discussion of dreams is at a bare minimum, and  suburbia is portrayed as a black hole of all that is joyous. A more truthful line should have been “a story of three lifelong friends, each choosing the paths of least resistance between the iniquity of the city and the ennui of suburbia.” You can either choose nothing or nothing and it all leads to nothing, and we’re back to square one! Tada!

American Idiot may very well be the ultimate nihilist musical of all time.

So what is so groundbreaking about the musical becomes a very interesting topic of discussion post-show. Is it the story? No. There are enough musicals and plays about youths getting lost and hitting rock bottom (or personal “ground zero” as it is put) to fill the library, most of them with actual plot lines. Is it some new discourse about of the modern world we live in? Again no. There is another library of plays and musicals about this as well. Is it the introduction of rock music into the musical theater genre? Yet another no. There were rock musicals as early as the 1960’s, and another whole train of them (think Rent, Next to Normal, Spring Awakening, just to name a few), all of them heavy hitters which pre-date American Idiot. What is truly ground breaking, and has not been seen on Broadway before, is that American Idiot may very well be the ultimate nihilist musical of all time. And this is truly groundbreaking indeed.

What saves American Idiot, is the production team. The brilliant set by Christine Jones and the bold projections by Darrel Maloney created some of the most stunning visuals for the show. The choreography by Steven Hoggett are high energy and often creative, with the duet between Van Hughes and Gabrielle McClinton during the drug scene being one of the highlights of the evening. The show is also blessed with a fantastic cast who did the best with the material given. There are fine contributions from Jake Epstein, Leslie McDonel, Joshua Kobak, Nicci Claspell and Jarran Muse, each tackling their supporting roles bravely. Scott J. Campbell is a particular standout as Tunny.

The poor woman sitting in front of me missed most of the show because she had to cover her eyes...

The excessive and continuous use of strobe lights from the very first to the last number is a major nuisance (they do warn you at the door, but not that it is non-stop). It may be acceptable for a rock concert or a rave, but exhibits a complete lack of ingenuity in lighting design for a theatre. The poor woman sitting in front of me missed most of the show because she had to cover her eyes from the intense glare.

Ultimately, American Idiot through its vague resemblance of a plot, offers no new points-of-view or social commentaries that have not already been tirelessly discussed. I cannot help but feel that this is a musical put together for the Green Day fans, milking their loyalty for all it's worth. To them, I say kudos! To the rest, this is a Green Day concert with dancing, extra strobe lights, minus actual Green Day members.

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