"American Idiot" has something to say. "American Idiot" has nothing to say. Part rock concert, part political statement, part slamming, jamming, banging celebration of youth, freedom, music and the very emptiness of American culture at the dawn of the millennium, "American Idiot" rocked Fort Myers.
Well, if by "rocked" you mean entertained a decidedly mixed (and typically dreadfully behaved) crowd of young and old at Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, then yes, it rocked everybody's face off. A one-night-only performance of the Green Day musical thrilled and chilled, but left me just a wee bit empty.
One of the best (if not the single best) jukebox musicals (yes, that's what it is) I've ever seen, "American Idiot" serves up 90 minutes of heart-pounding visuals, soaring aerial ballets, stomping, head-banging rock and powerful, emotive tunes. There's just no story.
Oh, well, there's a story - just a wisp of one. Three young people decide to leave suburbia for the city. Plans are derailed by pregnancy, the military, addiction, love, lust and pain. "Making it" proves difficult. The real world vanishes in a haze of smoke and needles and bullets. Redemption and friends offer salvation. I wish the show offered characters - meaningful, developed characters - to back up the melange of ideas and thoughts it throws to audiences. Riveting, but ultimately unsatisfying.
Based on the "American Idiot" album, with lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong and book by Armstrong and Michael Mayer, the show doesn't so much resemble musical theatre as nod as it passes by on the way to the mosh pit. Twenty-somethings in ripped and torn fashions (I want those clothes - all of them!) run, jump, leap and climb the walls of a set that reaches the highest heights of the back walls of the stage. Choreography offers a sinuous, racing, thumping feel of energy, of youth, of vibrancy - all pounding, beating, hammering - but in vain, directionless, aimless, wasted.
More than 30 TV screens blast a cacophony of images, turning news images of bombs, with their eerie green screens of missiles racing overhead into a heartbeat monitor, which then morphs into a bright red Arabic script. Metal scaffolding serves as tower, staircase, mountain and - in a major "wow" moment - tips over to become a bus.
Brandon Kalm replaces Alex Nee as Johnny, the show's lead. Musician, dreamer, thinker - Johnny yearns for "more," and Kalm allows the audience to see that pain of wanting. Scenes with drug dealer St. Jimmy (a magnetic Trent Saunders) pulse with a need for connection. Casey O'Farrell (Will) and Thomas Hettrick (Tunny) give depth to their shallow roles. Hettrick in particular makes his angry veteran one to watch.
The rock concert feel explodes off the stage. Sound and lights pulse with powerful emotion. Performers from Kalm to Saunders to Alyssa DiPalma's "Whatsername" yank the audience on stage with their solos. It's just difficult to care about the characters - no matter much visual, sonic and audible input the show blasts you with.
Beyond that, saying "American Idiot" has slivers of dialogue is like calling a communion wafer a three-course meal. It's a problem of all jukebox musicals - what do you do when the characters aren't singing? "The show" pours out a tidal wave of emotion - but that's all its got. It moves you - it just doesn't go anywhere.
Maybe that's the point. Remember, the characters on stage are portraying millenials. These are the digital heirs to the offspring of the baby boom. Raised inside the comforting bubble of consumerism, technology and completely without want, life is like, HARD, you know. Drive, ambition, responsibility and gumption floated away like clouds of smoke curling from the endless hits of a bong.
The show suffers from - once again - a poor sound balance in the hall. Much of the lyrics vanished in an unintelligible drone of amplification. For a rock concert - which this is - the shoddy sound was inexcusable.
"American Idiot" is beautiful, stirring, powerful and at times close to finding a way to speak for an entire generation of lost, angry and disenchanted young people. An unexpectedly gorgeous melding of theater and rock music, the show burns with a white-hot passion for life. I'm just not sure what anyone plans to do with that passion - or even if they plan to do anything at all. And that, my friends, is my generation in a nutshell.
Millenials. Can't hire them. Can't fire them. Too smart to make a good espresso. Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.