American Idiot, it turns out, is one of those musicals where knowing the music before you go in really helps to clarify things. But in clarity, everything, good and not so good, is easier to spot, less easy to forgive. And so, after a couple of weeks spent listening over and over to the Broadway Cast Recording of the show - which I still love, I went back to the St. James Theatre (I refuse to refer to it as the St. Jimmy) to see of I'd like the show any better than last time. Well... yes and no.
Let me start with the "no" so that I can end on a high note.
- Being familiar with the music allowed me a little more ease in viewing the show. I could relax and concentrate on the stage drama, not having to devote more than half my brain to trying to figure out what they hell they are singing. That said, the down side is that the character flaws interpreted into the songs by Mayer and Company come across as even more shallow, depressing, and worse, basically unchanged with one major exception. 95 minutes to yield little or no change does not good theatre make. It is as if we are waiting for act two. It never comes.
- It is also abundantly clear that less than a month into the run, some of the cast is already taking considerable liberties with Michael Mayer's staging. A few cast members, apparently exhausted from the 7 previous performances that week, are already calling it in. They aren't as sharp, and seem to be emphasizing the slacker part of their characters. Still, others really need to be reigned in - Gerard Cananico, Theo Stockman and, sadly, one of my favorite young actors, Andrew Call, are all seriously overdoing it, pulling focus more times than I'd care to see. It is cool, gentlemen, to be enthusiastic and to love what you are doing. It is another thing entirely when you are chewing the scenery at such an alarming rate. Many times, less is more.
- And, since I was there last, a major addition to the show has been put into place - an addition that was greeted with, I'm almost happy to report, a groan from the majority of an audience that not 30 seconds earlier was stamping its feet and screaming its love for all things Idiot. It is no plot spoiler to let you know that Green Day's most famous song, "Good Riddance" (Most people call it "Time of Your Life" or "that song from Seinfeld) has been added as the curtain call number. The cast is lined up across the stage with, to a person, shit-eating grins like they have the biggest secret and are about to give it away. They are all also holding guitars, which all of them appear to be playing (though I seriously doubt they are). They sing the song well, but the tone and lyrics of the song really obliterate the excitement and energy of the preceding 93 minutes. Talk about a buzz kill. The audience was right to groan. And I can tell you the audience at this performance was much more into the show than the last time I saw it, but was as subdued as a crowd leaving a funeral on the way out.
- Finally, the problems with the show's book remain, though I'd swear there was a bit more to each of Johnny's postcards. The ending still leaves you flatter than it should - I'd still move "Whatsername" to the middle of the final bunch of songs so that the final image is the cast clumped together shouting at us "nobody likes you..." I mean if they can add a song from Dookie to the end, why do they have to be so damned clingy to the song order of the original album? It now feels like we were all drugged then are being weaned off the high before we can leave the theatre.
Now for the "yes" parts"
- With clarity, I can even more appreciate the work the 7 principals are doing with characterization, considering how little the are literally given to work with. Kudos especially to Michael Esper and Libby Winters (in for Mary Faber at this performance) for actually making a couch potato interesting 100% of the time.
- What was good the last time - namely John Gallagher, Jr., Stark Sands, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Christina Sajous - is really approaching great. They are all consummate professionals, tweaking and deepening their characters without pushing and without deviating from the director's plan. Sands still has the best storyline to work with and he and Sajous make up Broadway's hottest couple. Talk about an emotional roller coaster. And you can tell they both really enjoy their flying sequence. Their emotions spill out across the footlights and bathe the audience.
- It seems there was some major tweaking done with St. Jimmy (the very good Tony Vincent), as it is now very clear that he is not real, but an alter ego to our hero. This is a particularly good change, because now you can see how Vincent's every move is calculated for the highest possible impact.
- The choreography and some of the late show staging has also been slightly altered. It is as frenzied as ever, but much less repetitive, and getting rid of some of the props in a later scene (I don't want to give anything away) really helps focus a major outcome for Johnny.
I'd guess you'd say that everything comes out pretty even. The improvements improve the show while the shortcomings seem even more apparent. And ultimately, what does it say about a show where you get more impact from the cast recording than the live show?
(Photos by Paul Kolnik)
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