Preparing to see American Idiot was kind of nerve-wracking. I hadn’t seen the show before, but I have a history with Green Day. Dookie was the first album I bought myself as a middle-schooler. “Good Riddance/Time of Your Life” was the prom song for our class and everyone else who graduated that year (JC reminded me of this, as he was my Not Going To Prom date, and my date for this show). And I could still take you to the precise stoplight I was at in Staunton, a few weeks into grad school, lonely, depressed, and certain I had made all the wrong choices in life, when I first heard “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” on WNRN and wept uncontrollably. I think of Green Day as a band that I grew up with.
This show, I thought, was going to be like a movie of a favorite book. Some possibility for being wonderful, but a far greater chance of the kind of deep, gut-level disappointment that is nearly impossible to describe. I had heard snippets of the cast album when the show was on Broadway and I remember that hearing a Donny-Osmond-sound-alike singing, “Give Me Novocaine” was deeply disconcerting. And seeing it at a college, performed by children who were in kindergarten when the album came out? Oh my.
I’m reading The Power of Vulnerability right now, and I thought, well, Brené Brown would tell me to lean into this. Not only did I decide to go see the show, but I also volunteered to respond to it for KCACTF.
Lucky for all of us, it was relentlessly entertaining, beginning with an original student-written number entitled “Turn Off Your Fucking Phones.” Such a fun and interesting production, so much to love. A couple of students I had worked with in an acting class in 2017 were in it, and I was impressed with their work. They had truly grown as performers–the development people undergo in the college years is astounding.
The book for this show is thin at best. The writing for the not-sung parts is flat, at best, and is clearly a pretext for the songs. In most musicals, the songs arise from the story, but in this case, obviously, it is the other way around. Fortunately, there’s not much of that–it’s mostly the songs. Kate Arrechi, the faculty member who hosted me and who was the co-music director for the show, described it as “a 90-minute music video,” and I completely got that. The story doesn’t matter, it’s mostly an excuse for stringing together these songs.
The production had a wonderful thematic unity that held it together and connected the various layers of time in it. In the program, the dramaturg’s (Zachary Doresy) note connected the themes of the play to a TED Talk about addiction, the core line of which is “The opposite of addiction is connection.” The disillusionment of American Idiot is clearly about yearning for authenticity and connection, and the production named that and expounded on it in every way. From the preshow setup, where a TV showed grainy clips of Tiny Toons and WWF fights, interspersed with a blue screen that said, “Signal Lost. Waiting for Connection,” to the way the blocking included very few moments of sustained eye contact (and those that were there were carefully planned and deployed–very effective), to the way the pit musicians weren’t even together–there were two separate “pit” areas, and sometimes musicians would wander out of those areas and just play somewhere else, carrying a bucket drum or electric guitar to a private spot.
I’m glad this show had a dramaturg, because the themes of disconnection and disillusionment just aren’t the same for today’s college students as they were for Gen Xers. I talked with him after the show. He was a little older than me and referred to himself as “the resident Gen Xpert.” The cast talked a lot about how he helped to bring that world alive for them, assigning videos and articles. The kids did their homework, and it showed. Some of the ways that the play spoke to that era went beyond what is in the album and surprised me. Toward the end, there was a total girl power moment, and I realized that the story of the play is about women deciding they will not put up with anyone’s nonsense, and the men ending up back where they started. My generation was the first one where women outnumbered men in college. I was raised in a cohort of girls who were taught that they’d better have a life plan and go get what they wanted, where the boys were…less so. I’m honestly not sure the men of my generation have recovered from that, and seeing it acted out in a show that I thought was going to be about suburban white boy angst (which it was but also…) surprised me. The choreo on that number was fantastic, too–straight out of a Destiny’s Child video.
The set and lighting took cues from a rock show, which was super fun. I spend a lot of time with lighting designers debating over which of two very subtly different colors feels more like REAL afternoon sunlight. Seeing a situation where a lighting designer had so much freedom to just use All The Gobos was a delight. The one flaw I saw in the lighting design was that there was so much going on–in the music, on the set, and in the lighting–that it didn’t do a good job of helping me figure out where on stage I should be looking. A minor thing, and I figured it out.
They had some gorgeous projection design–something I normally don’t like, but this was very strongly integrated with everything else, sometimes using digital edits on preshot video footage, sometimes using phones on stage to give a completely different perspective on the show as it happened.
The musical-izing of this piece of art that I know so deeply was a fascinating element for me to observe. Some moments felt more deeply realized because of the multiplied voices, repeated themes, restatement in another character’s moment, chorus. In particular, “21 Guns,” which I’ve always felt was a weak point in the album, was a powerful number with its meaning shifting depending on who was singing in a given instant. Seeing how actors found their own authentic place in this well-known music was interesting, too. Al Gravina, who played St. Jimmy (and was one of my former students), had a deep authenticity in his portrayal of a character that easily could have been a cartoon.
The production was very aware of its situation within the history of both music and musical theater. The opening had the cast mostly obscured behind a projection medium that looked like a giant trash bag. Over time the lights shifted so that the dancers behind it became visible. The effect reminded me surprisingly much of the famous opening of 42nd Street. The choreography was a great blend of jumping and headbanging and technical musical theater moves, with lifts and turns as precise as any you’d see in a Golden Age musical. Other moments were lifted straight from music videos I watched in high school. And toward the end, the cast were all over the stage doing the thing we do now when we need to connect or disconnect–staring at their phones, the screens lighting their faces.
The show took a bit to get me on board–the first few numbers felt a little like the cast was enacting angst, without having a deep understanding of it. But then “Boulevard” happened and was completely brilliant and grounded. I think the choreography required significant focus and trust–lots of moves that involved sharing weight with a partner–and that literally and figuratively grounded the cast. Following that, the whole show felt more solid.
The show ends with “Good Riddance,” which is not in the original album. The whole cast sings it. It felt so…oddly sweet. It was, dare I say, a strikingly Millennial ending to an angsty Gen X play. The earnestness of it felt refreshing, but also maybe out of sync with the rest of it. It hit me right in the feels.