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Lucy Komisar

"American Idiot" plumbs angst among youths with no politics or vision

"American Idiot"
Book by Billie Joe Armstrong & Michael Mayer; music by Day; by Joe Armstrong; directed by Michael Mayer.
St. James Theatre 246 West 44th Street, New York, NY.
Opened April 20, 2010; closes April 24, 2011
212-239-6200; http://americanidiotonbroadway.com/.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar May 18, 2010.

The company. Photo by Paul Kohut.

This vibrant rock production about youthful rebellion in the face of a fraudulent society is in the tradition of "Hair." But it's not "Hair" with the memorable tunes that we still remember decade later; it's more like MTV. Fast, often driving, and the kind of hard rock of the 28 Green Day tunes that doesn't much distinguish it from anything else of that genre.

The protagonists are beer-drinking kids from 18 to their 20s. A U.S. flag hangs upside down. North Korea has successfully detonated a nuclear weapon. There's a video of the second Bush. The kids sing/shout: "We are the kids of war and peace/ From Anaheim to the Middle East" and "Let's start a war shall we." "I'm not part of a red neck agenda," declares one. They rage against lies and consumerism. But the lyrics reflect free-floating political angst, though not much politics. These working class kids are self-destructive or destroyed.

Tony Vincent as St. Jimmy. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

A youth seduced by drugs, head shaved, body tattooed, asks, "Do you know the enemy?" The enemy is partly themselves. One tries to hold up a convenience store, then admits his mom ignored him. A guy wears a big cod piece; women are glittery cover art. Lives diverge. One couple has a baby, another takes heroin.

Converging with "Hair" – we have bloody wars every few decades, don't we? — one of the youths becomes an army officer with iconic reflecting glasses. We hear the sound of artillery of troops in battle. Then the inevitable grievously wounded soldier arrives.

There's also a generational thing about diminished attention span, melody replaced by sensory din, the audio cacophony of rock and the visual cacophony of modern technology: the stage is filled with pulsating video screens ranged along the backdrop and hanging from the rafters.

Michael Esper as Will, Stark Sands as Tunny and John Gallagher Jr. as Johnny.

I wish I'd understood all the lyrics, which listeners of a certain age perhaps imbibe, but which is lost on people who can't absorb the screeching slurred words. Nonetheless, the words take second place to the stunning visuals and staging. Perhaps another sign of the times. In fact, the most innovative part of the play is the set by Christine Jones and staging by director Michael Mayer. Except for some of the production that is hokey, a bad imitation of Andrew Lloyd Weber: the hero and a woman fly through the air.

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