Chicago Theatre Review
American Idiot Delivers Loud and Lovely
By Lazlo Collins
As I settled back into my chair at the Oriental Theater in Chicago, I began to recall Green Day’s American Idiot album (or should I say CD) that I heard before. The break out songs, the angry guitar riffs, and the raging lyrics by Billie Jo Armstrong were being strongly considered before the curtain rose.
When the act curtain was finally open, I searched the set for signs of a great Broadway musical. The music began and the volume was LOUD. Perhaps the “rage against society” or “where am I going” rock musical would be too much for me? Perhaps I was too old to appreciate the messages of lost youth, of lost passions, of friends separated too soon? I was getting nervous.
The hour-forty, no intermission, groundbreaking Broadway musical had begun. With the band onstage and ready to go, the story of three friends bored and ready to beat it out of town for something more, was off to a frantic start, with the title song of “American Idiot”.
The main trio of men is revealed immediately throughout the first song. Johnny (Van Hughes), Tunny (Scott J. Campbell, and Will (Jake Epstein) are three close friends. The three are bored, unmotivated, and questioning the world around them. And with their musical “Holiday” cue they are off.
At the gate, Will stays behind to take care of his child and girlfriend. Mr. Epstein plays Will with all the downtrodden apathy he can muster. He takes on his child filled consequences with careful consideration. He is left behind by his pals, but the drama of an unhappy girlfriend will keep his story moving throughout the show.
As Tunny and Johnny continue on to the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, Tunny joins the Army and Johnny stumbles behind. These two men are standouts in this production. Mr. Campbell is not only stunningly strong throughout his portrayal of the reluctant Army guy, but his lovely tenderness that translates from his profound loss is clear and so moving. He is a presence with his frame and his fabulous voice. I could not wait for him to sing again.
Mr. Hughes’s Johnny is also strong, clear, and a little dopey. I am not sure if this was a convention of this particular show, but was a choice that worked for his character. His descent from love into heroin madness is a heartbreaking. Mr. Hughes is very likeable on stage, not to mention his enormous talent as a performer and singer. His clear tones with contrasting sweet ballads versus rock and roll anthems are well executed, and emotionally driven. His casual, wily, smile suits this actor well.
Wait a minute, my nervousness and apprehension about the show is gone. I am totally into the story, song, and characters. It is still LOUD, but also soft, also sweet, and also sad and thought provoking. It is official. I am a fan.
As the story moves along for each of the men, we meet their muses. The pregnant, Heather, played by Leslie McDonel; the mysterious drug lover, Whatsername, played by Gabrielle McClinton; and the Army fantasy companion, The Extraordinary Girl, played by Nicci Claspbell. These woman were all excellent in there respective roles. Ms. McDonel and Ms. Claspbell were matched perfectly for their characters. Through the anger and frustration came lovely voices that translated throughout the audience. Ms. McClinton’s intensity sometimes overshadowed her performance and at times it was difficult to understand her lyrics. That said, it is a difficult role to perform with its constant intensity.
the rage is “St. Jimmy” played delectably sinister and invasive by Joshua Koback.(His “exit” was brilliantly staged.) His voice was amazing as well. Bravo!
It would be completely wrong not to mention the dynamite ensemble that continued to swirl and move around the main characters. The choreography (Steven Hoggett) was always interesting and always seems to be pushing, and fighting against an invisible force surrounding the actors. Each time an ensemble member was featured in a solo performance there was never a disappointment in style and performance.
The scenic design (Christine Jones), sound design (Brian Ronan), lighting design (Brian Ronan), and lighting design (Kevin Adams) were all amazingly integrated in this production. Many times I smiled at the wonder of these elements all working together at such an accelerated pace.
I tip my hat to Michael Mayer for another successful youth driven discovery piece for us; (Although the set seemed reminiscent of “Spring Awakening” in some ways; sans the monitors.) and to Green Day for its driving melodies and clear line of musical power; moving from album to musical theater showpiece.
As the final strains of the guitars after the curtain call brought a tear to my eye, it was clear; I HAD been captivated by all the misplaced dreams and rage. “American Idiot” had won me over. You are never too old for rock and roll and rage. Go get carried away.
“American Idiot” continues at the Oriental Theater, through Broadway in Chicago, through 19 Feb. 2012. Call 800-775-2000 or online at www.broadwayinchicago.com