Turn it Up: American Idiot Doesn't Get It

Punking it up at Playhouse on the Square


When Johnny met Whatsername
  • When Johnny met Whatsername

People who are bored are also boring. The junkie life is a study in redundancy. And it’s impossible to muster sympathy for a couch potato stoner dodging life’s responsibilities.These are hurdles any production of American Idiot has to overcome. Playhouse on the Square’s production of the Green Day musical fails to clear any of them, though it might get some extra lift if somebody would just TURN UP THE BAND!

Director Gary John La Rosa likes to tell stories and he's good at it, usually. La Rosa felt like many of American Idiot's words — and subsequently much of the musical's story — had been lost in Broadway’s noisy sensory assault. To correct for this he placed the band behind the scenery, and pushed it to the back of the theater, effectively turning punk-inspired guitar buzz that should be the real star of this project, into a supporting player in the drama. It’s a good theory, and an enormous miscalculation.

Turn up the band.

Whether it's Green Day or Lady Gaga, or something great that only you and your five closest friends know, so much of how we experience pop music is contextual. Radio hits and cult classics serve as a markers for who we are, who we were, and who we wanted to be way back when we wore our hair like whatever. Sure, the rock era has produced its share of top drawer wordsmiths, and Green Day's Billy Joe Armstrong may even be one of them. But when it comes right down to the creation of meaning, a popular song’s verses aren't nearly as important as the hook. How else does one explain the creepy “Every Breath You Take,” as a prom theme? Or Ronald Reagan pairing an optimistic motto like “Morning in America,” with Springsteen’s ”Born in the USA?” And what about that deeply meaningful song you fell in love with in high school and have sung wrong ever since? The idea I’m trying (and probably failing) to express is at the heart of what went wrong at POTS. American Idiot isn’t a show where you need to hear all the words, but you absolutely do need to feel all the feels. With the band turned down and pushed into the background, I just wasn’t feeling any of it it.

Turn up the band.

American Idiot
isn't a musical in any traditional sense. It's more of a  an angry, youthful screed responding to 20th-Century excess and 21st-Century wars — a collage of sights and sounds that remind us of just how fractured and confusing life could be at the turn of the century. The story — if you can really call it that — revolves around three young bros from the burbs striking out on their own and making life choices that turn out badly. Plot points related to addiction, a failing marriage, and combat are prosaically grafted to a generous heap of mostly catchy songs from Green Day’s similarly titled concept album. The record was released in September 2004, as Republicans held their national convention in New York. It was a noisy and contentions time. 24-Hour cable news was expanding. Talk radio was at its zenith, The Daily Show was entering its prime and internet blogs were proliferating and bending toward the mainstream. All this red and blue fracturing and image saturation is alluded to in POTS’s Idiot, but the dots don’t connect.

Mark Guirguis’ set reminds me of the windows in rundown industrial blocks just off the L-line in Brooklyn about five minutes before gentrification hit. But without the flavor. John Horan’s lights spend too much time in our eyes. Caleb Blackwell’s costumes look like he may have consulted with my mother on the finer details of punk fashion. The only thing this misfire production really has going for it is a fearless cast that can sing its ass off. And does just that.

Turn up the band.

It’s not Rock-and-Roll unless it upsets the parents, and to the show’s credit, people of parenting age got up and left when Alexis Grace (Whatsername) and Nathan McHenry (Johnny) stripped down for the big sex scene. Like all the little birdies being flipped, it’s an easy way to stir the pot, but it gets the job done. I knew how the bolting couples felt though. I too became embarrassed and wanted to leave the theater on a few occasions when an actor who’s clearly not a very skilled guitar player plunked and plodded his way through music he never should have been asked to play in the first place.

Turn up the band.

I’m inclined to go on, but I’ll end before this turns into a tantrum. And with a reminder that most of these complaints might be neutralized by concert level decibels.

Turn up the band.

It’s a great fucking band.


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