Wednesday, 5 December 2012

American Idiot - Review

Hammersmith Apollo, London

Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer
Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong
Music by Green Day
Directed by Michael Mayer

Jenna Rubaii and Thomas Hettrick

The logo for Green Day’s American Idiot is a clenched fist clutching a hand grenade that has in turn been fashioned from a bleeding heart. No orphaned waifs or green faced witches to depict this show. In what is possibly the most refreshingly intelligent new musical to open in London for some years, Michael Mayer (who also directs) has, in collaboration with Green Day’s creative talent Billie Joe Armstrong, taken the threads from the songs of the American Idiot album and woven a harsh but nonetheless credible and relevant story of America post 9/11.
The show is a refreshing blast of rock opera, painting a grand canvas that charts three disaffected young men, disillusioned with the modern USA.  Johnny falls into a drug-fuelled trajectory that almost destroys him, Tunny enlists and goes to fight in the Gulf whilst Will who also succumbs to a dope and drink fuelled life is forced to confront the responsibilities of accidentally becoming a father, a challenge that he ultimately fails to live up to.
Where musical theatre can typically be a land of charmingly talented whimsy, albeit one in which the most challenging of human circumstances may arise, American Idiot is born, not from the pen of a worldy-wise theatrical composer, nor from the saccharine stack of juke-box musicals that flood the commercial stages, but rather from the urgency of one of the most striking rock albums of this time. The music has a pulsing integrity and the book that is portrayed on stage is often harrowing but occasionally uplifting
The performers are all from the the States, which is where this touring company rehearsed the production under the direction of the original Broadway creatives. A six piece band spread across the largely open, but subtly designed stage, provides an authentic sound that replicates Green Day, but be warned: The acoustics of the cavernous Apollo are unforgiving and some of Billy Joe’s finely crafted poetry is at times lost against the wall of sound. If one can attend with some pre knowledge of the songs, it is to be recommended.
The drugs’ effects are performed harrowingly if not graphically and set against the horrors of war, the show hits deep levels of pathos. Tunny loses a leg fighting and in the field hospital prior to surgery he visualises an Extraordinary Girl. What follows is a sensational aerial ballet performed by the two characters (Thomas Hettrick and Jenna Rubaii) in which a passionate swirling dance and embrace of two talented performers fills the entire breadth, depth and height of the stage in a routine that is breathtaking to observe.  In one of Green Day’s most recognised hits, Wake Me Up When September Ends, Hettrick, with Alex Nee and Casey O’Farrell, Johnny and Will respectively, all play acoustic guitar to open the sensitive number before the band and ensemble fade in to support them.
Mark Shenton of the Sunday Express and The Stage drew some parallels between American Idiot and Movin Out, the show based on the songs of Billy Joel. This blog saw the Joel production both in New York City and in the West End and Shenton is right to comment. On Broadway, Movin Out was punchy and literally moving, taking Joel’s songs to create a believable story of the struggle of America’s post Vietnam veterans. The audience wept. In London though, the show bombed and whilst in the USA it touched a nation’s psyche, at the Victoria Apollo it was just another ( albeit good ) show that lacked  a domestic spark. Green Day have a larger and more youthful audience than Joel, so this production may achieve greater UK success in the future, but where expensive West End tickets require a wealthy  and typically older (and therefore possibly, not so connected to Green Day’s music) audience base, for American Idiot to achieve long or even medium term commercial recognition on this side of the pond will require immense hurdles of culture and attitude to be overcome.
Whilst success for the show "over here" cannot be easily predicted, it is unquestionably  deserved. American Idiot is brilliant, perceptive and whilst not telling an easy tale, is arguably the best new musical theatre in town.

Runs to December 16th

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