Prodigal Sons Ground Up In American Idiot at Civic Theatre

For those of us with a taste for so-called “rock operas,” American Idiot is a feast: loud, galloping, earnest, yearning and awash in the pure energy of youth. Like most such shows, it tells a simple story of growing up frustrated without finding any ideal answers.

American Idiot (unfortunate title; ignore it) lacks the enchantment of Hair or the haunting mysticism of Tommy but then, so does this era. The raw material – an album by the abidingly popular group Green Day – and the polisher – director Michael Mayer – are first-rate talents in their fields and the quality shows through the racket and hysteria.

The touring cast of American Idiot

The touring cast of American Idiot
Photo by Litwin


If Mayer could bring to tingling life an ancient wheeze like Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening then this assignment must have seemed like a walk in the park. The Green Day songs, mainly by group leader Billy Joe Armstrong, are appealingly varied, melodic and canny in their use of the rock ‘n’ roll tradition. So what if the book, by Mayer and Armstrong, is shallow and utilitarian? We’re all used to the concept of “juke-box musicals” now, and this is comfortably above average in that company.

There is strength where it’s needed. Steven Hogget’s choreography is fabulous: often sturdy, rough-edged  group movement switching from simple to complex or obvious to startling with abrupt jerks of stimulation. Christine Jones’ massive unit set, with the usual scaffolding variations punctuated by 35 video screens rarely dark and a constant flow of furniture and props, has room for all occasions. Andrea Lauer’s costumes will be familiar to anybody who walks public streets on festive occasions.

The electronics are bothersome. Darrel Maloney fills those screens with vivid video and slathers projections all over everything with extravagant but very familiar results. And Kevin Adams takes the aggressive lighting cliché of beams into the spectators’ eyes a few steps too far. This is the first show that I can remember to which I wish I’d brought my shades.

The story is at least as old as the biblical Prodigal Son, probably older: Boy leaves home to seek his fortune, gets kicked around toward wisdom and returns home to be welcomed by his own. Throw in some drugs, sex and military menace and there you have it.

There were some diverting variations: The three prodigals, not one, don’t all end up with the girl. Their art didn’t turn out to be immortal or even sustaining. And they don’t sprawl into a dizzy assortment of colorful quirks as do the denizens of, for instance, Rent.

Since the touring show at he Civic Theatre was a non-union production, and thus faced no requirement to announce or publish cast changes, much of the opening night audience probably was unaware that the leading role was played by an understudy. It wasn’t really a problem. Neither of the performers are anybody you’re likely to have seen or heard of before. Not yet, anyway. Judging from their program bios, most of the actors are recent grads from prestigious musical-theatre schools yet to build a resume but not at all inappropriate for a show such as this, which emphasizes passionate youth etc. And the Mayer-Hoggett staging doesn’t really require Broadway pros. Cheerleader schtick and drama-major thighs are tolerable.

John Kraus played the natural leader, the one that meets the drug pusher, the street tart, the club scene and all that. Thomas Hettrick is the burley guy who gets dazzled by the Army and shot up in some Middle-East war thing. And Casey O‘Farrell is the kid who never gets past the city limits when his girlfriend gets pregnant. Their exuberant male bonding is infectious until they began drifting apart. As victims, they are less interesting characters even as the songs that tell their stories command attention.

Thomas Hettyrick and Jenna Rubaii in American Idiot. John Daughtry photo

Thomas Hettrick and Jenna Rubaii in American Idiot.
John Daughtry photo

Kraus and Alyssa DiPalma, as his big-city babe, share a lovely “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” (Not the Al Dubin-Harry Warren song from the 1934 film Moulin Rouge. No, not the Moulin Rouge film directed by Baz Luhmann. Or that one with Jose Ferrer. Oh, forget it.) Hettrick and Jenna Rubaii, as a vision, I suppose, of his military nurse, do a ravishing aerial pas de deux to “Extraordinary Girl,” with Flying by Foy never better. Jared Young as a sexy sergeant sells the recruiting song “Favorite Son” with great brio. “Wake Me Up When September Ends” is a moving statement. And the homecoming finale, using apparently all the rest of the songs on the album, rolls right along handsomely.

A lot of the musical successes come from the Tom Kitt arrangements and the solid stage band but my favorite thing in the whole show, really, was watching Evan Jay Newman stage left, conducting and pounding that keyboard. Music often gets a lift from a leader’s sheer willpower and inspiration, but you need to see Newman at work for a fuller appreciation of this truth.

So, in the end, the one kid shrugs off the fast life, the other gets patched up and the third finally comes off the couch. Life doesn’t immediately hold much promise, but there do seems to be possibilities beyond the couch, the cubicle or the combat. Hope again springs eternal.

[box] Continues through June 3, 2013[/box]





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San Diego Civic Theatre
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