In ‘American Idiot John Gallagher is Broadway’s New Antihero
By: Isa Goldberg
There’s a tsunami erupting on the stage of the St. James Theatre. Bodies are hurtling; fever is raging; casualties are reported. Call it just another rock opera, call it imperfect, call it what you will, but “American Idiot” announces a break from the predictability of typical Broadway musicals.
Based on Green Day’s Grammy Award-winning album, “Idiot” is, in spite of token gestures at chronology, essentially nonliteral and nonlinear. Its youthful characters are symbols of a sick society, one that feeds on the repetition of bad decisions. Whether it’s going off to the war in Iraq as Tunny does, or shooting heroin the way Johnny and Whatsername do, the acts are clearly self-destructive. In fact, the story these characters tell is a collection of fragments that reveal an alternate world; one which mirrors our own. News flashes spew from television screens; newspapers are plastered against the back wall.
Inspired by The Who’s “Tommy,” “Idiot” echoes with greater urgency that musical’s lyrical message, “See me, feel me, touch me.” Its fitful energy brings to mind the ranting poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. As coming of age story, it’s derivative of “Hair.”
The place, loosely indicated in lyrics, is New York City. Into an abstract landscape of steel stairwells and jungle gyms Johnny, now known as Jesus of Suburbia, arrives. And there is nothing like John Gallagher on the stage. A true messiah in this era of lethargic leading men. His Tony Award-winning portrayal of the tortured Moritz in “Spring Awakening” was only a glimmer of what we see here – a pulsating, stomping, persistent energy that threatens to explode like a bomb.
He is joined by a forceful team of actors. Stark Sands as Tunny has a transparent, vulnerable quality. He brings an ethereal voice to the Green Day song, “Are We the Waiting.” With its self-nullifying refrain, “Are we, we are,” it leads to Tunny’s realization, and the musical’s underlying irony: “The Jesus of Suburbia is a lie.”
Tony Vincent’s St. Jimmy, who seduces Johnny into drugs, cuts the figure of a demon with lethal edge. He’s a visual spectacle to behold. And as Johnny’s paramour, Rebecca Naomi Jones’ Whatsername is restless and sexual; it’s she who gets lost to Junk. While Will (Michael Esper), a looser who knocks up his girlfriend (Mary Faber) and Tunny who looses his leg in the war return to suburbia, it’s Johnny who still reflects (a little) on the loss of Whatsername. His apocalyptic vision finally appears as a bad dream from which he emerges having learned some harsh lessons. The ending seems more facile than restorative with the characters magically retouched and ready for Facebook. It’s an overreaching, albeit ambitious narrative.
Similarly, the music is over amplified even though Tom Kitt’s orchestration with piano and violin is softer than the album’s chain-sawing guitars. Clearly, a production that doesn’t strive for nuance, doesn’t offer any. Still, the headache you’re getting may be one you want to keep as the show is irresistibly propelled by the suggestive power of youth. And as choreographed by Steven Hoggett, it has a constant thrust and grace that are completely genuine – unlike anything I’ve seen on the Broadway stage.
Hoggett’s sense of the bacchanalian and the primal takes this fragmented tale to dramatic heights. Designer Christine Jones creates in the physical world, what Billie Joe Armstrong depicts in lyrics, the “information age of hysteria” and the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” that follows it.
With “American Idiot” director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening”) delivers the promise of a new form for the Broadway musical, one that is both revolting and engrossing.
“American Idiot” is at the St. James Theatre (246 West 44th Street). Performances are Monday at 8 p.m., Tuesday and Sunday at 7 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, go to www.telecharge.com or visit the box office.