Thursday, February 21, 2013

Theatre review: "American Idiot" with a road company at Heinz Hall

A traveling version of the musical American Idiot has surged into town for a few days. This ensemble has so much energy you can’t help wondering how they sustain all that song- yelling while jumping, leaping, flying, soaring all over a set which looks so solid and detail- filled that you have to wonder how the whole thing can be set up and torn down on a weekly basis.
Looking at this year-long-running 2010-11Broadway sensation you could get the idea that it is as much a spectator sport as a theatrical event. Sure there’s a slight story line, something on which to nail all the material from the same-named album by Green Day: Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Trè Cool. But the nearly dialogue-less, 90 minute-or- so item seems more about visually personifying the songs with the emphasis on feelings rather than on the meaning of the words, usually lost in high decibel volume. There are a few temporarily quiet moments with eloquent traces of simple folk-song- like melodies, backed by a string quartet represented by a live cellist in a cage. Why the cage? I guess it’s some kind of a statement, or it may be to protect his tranquility from the uncaged action throbbing all around him.  

The stage vibrates with a fascinating flow of remarkable images, Steven Hoggett’s choreography becoming constantly impressive. 
Armstrong and director Michael Mayer’s book focuses on three young men, Johnny and Tunny who escape their lives in suburbia while Will stays behind to work out a relationship with his pregnant girlfriend. The former two try to find meaning in the freedom and excitement of a big city. Tunny joins the military and comes back war-wounded. Johnny gets into an intense relationship and even more heavily into drugs, giving  up his girl friend in favor of his addictions. Most of the time none of them is happy or fulfilled, perhaps idiots ruining their lives.
At the start of the show you clearly get the idea that all these people are angry. Given that, everywhere they turn, TV screens dominate their scenery replicating and multiplying the images of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, you can understand their feelings, including the idea that their world is becoming increasingly bleak. Christine Jones’ set brings that home, dominated by pervasive technology including looming black sound equipment and bare metal scaffolds and never a hint of a green day with trees and flowers. There’s also the graffiti-surrounded toilet upstage to add to the impression. Plus Andrea Lauer’s costumes make it clear that clothes choices reflect ugliness as a style statement.

Especially witness a beautiful aerial ballet personifying Tunny’s hallucinations while sedated in his hospital bed; he and his nurse fly to and from each other yearning to hold on. And there is also a telling expression of how Johnny and his girlfriend are caught in the coils of heroin addiction, as if their tourniquets are poisonous snakes.   

You probably need to know that the production should carry a warning that it’s for “mature audiences only” given plenty of profanity plus simulated sex and drug use, even if the characters themselves are hovering on  the edge of maturity.

As for the leading roles, everyone sings and moves with all the intensity required while capably suggesting as much personality as possible. But the ensemble carries the day, even if it never transforms into something green.   

American Idiot continues through Sunday, February 24th at Heinz Hall, downtown. 412-392-4900 or


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