American Idiot puts the pop-punk back into Broadway
by Drew Rowsome - Photos by Seanna Kennedy
Times, trends and styles change rapidly. So rapidly that Green Day's American Idiot - album released in 2004, Broadway musical opened in 2010 - is now a period piece. The album was revolutionary and turned a bratty little pop-punk band into artists. The Broadway musical was hugely successful but was so bloated, so determined to be au courant and hip, that it didn't resonate. Adding layers to punk music can amplify the angst and energy, smothering it in sequins and effects just squashes the life out of it. I was eagerly anticipating the touring production that came through Toronto, I wound up hating it for its garishness, pointlessness, and desecration of Billy Joe Armstrong's powerful music.
The Lower Ossington Theatre production of American Idiot takes a different approach and it works immeasurably better. The show is emphatically set way back in the early 2000s, the performance space is intimate and in your face, and, most crucially, the big effects are provided by an ensemble who are truly remarkable. The director Heather Braaten and choreographer Miles Faber move bodies on and off stage so quickly and efficiently that minimal props give maximum visuals. Alas there is no way to make choreographed headbanging and pogoing look anything but ridiculous, but the effort is valiant.
The songs of American Idiot are strong, catchy and, the power of pop music, as familiar as any classic musical. Unfortunately the plot is not much, rife with clichés, and reeking of suburban privilege. That the cast is so energetic and likeable, the music so driving and well sung, that the audience cares about their fate. Mike Buchanan as the central character Johnny, has a puppy-dog punk snarl down pat but is only given vocal lines that rise above the ensemble on occasion. He is also saddled with the least sympathetic and most ridiculous plotline, but fortunately is possessed of enough charm and sinewy appeal to breathe believability into a saga that is bad Dr Phil episode or after school "Don't Do Drugs!" special.
The first act of LOT's American Idiot is as brash and energetic as one could hope a punk-pop popera to be and the second act almost matches it. It's just when the finale reaches for profundity and instead tumbles into more clichés that letdown sets in. Fortunately Baarten has a fix and the cast assembles for a brief seated sing-a-long - it is such a contrast and so neatly forefronts the cast's vocal talents and charms that the night ends on a cathartic note that the book and score aren't able to provide. Billie Joy Armstrong would be pleased.