Sunglasses and earplugs may be required to successfully enjoy a performance of American Idiot. This fiercely intense musical, currently playing at the St. James theater, is unapologetically loud, both in the volume of its music and the meaning of it message. But the volume of both the music and the message is forgivable, thanks to the stylized delivery and heartfelt performances by a cast brimming with enthusiasm, vibrance and rage.
Built from the 2004 Green Day album of the same name and featuring a few songs from the band’s subsequent album, “21st Century Breakdown,” American Idiot’s skeletal story revolves around three young men from a small suburban town. Bored and disenchanted, Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.), Tunny (Stark Sands) and Will (Michael Esper) plot their escape to the big city. Will’s plans are changed when his girlfriend Heather (Mary Faber) informs him that she is pregnant. Johnny meets and falls for the lovely Whatshernace (Rebecca Naomi Jones) while Tunny, dazzled by the media’s oversaturation of the war, promptly enlists in the army. (This scene, set to the song “Favorite Son” is especially entertaining, thanks to a dazzlingly comedic performance by Joshua Henry). Another highlight is “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” portraying Johnny’s loneliness in the city. Disappointment and disenchantment soon follow for all the boys, concluding with a bittersweet reunion of the older, and hopefully wiser, friends.
It’s not a great plot, but that’s not why we’re here. What we do know, we know from the postcards Johnny sends to Will, or from his narration directly to the audience. And even that is minimal. While more insight into the characters would have deepened the production a bit and made the characters more human, the lack of it isn’t felt that deeply in such a bright, loud show where the style has obviously taken precedence over substance. Staged on a dark, grungy set filled with television sets, it is apparent this show is going to be abstract, to say the least. Recordings of George W. Bush discussing terrorists are quickly followed by news reports about Brad and Angelina and other “news” stories from the last few years. The angry proclamation, “Don’t want to be an American idiot…one nation run by the media,” is a familiar feeling. And while the story may not seem quite original (the portrayals of lost souls struggling to find themselves invoked memories of Spring Awakening, also directed by Mayer, and Hair , just to mention a few), the theme is so timeless and the actors are so honest that it feels worth visiting again.
John Gallagher Jr., who won the Tony for his moving portrayal of the suicidal Moritz in Spring Awakening achieves the same frustrated intensity as Johnny, delving even deeper into the angst of a young man who wants to do something, but he just doesn’t know what. Stark Sands gives a haunting performance as Tunny, especially after facing tragedy on the battlefield. As Will, Esper manages to emote, even while slumped onto a couch with a beer in one hand and a bong in the other. Jones is achingly beautiful as Whatshername, and Tony Vincent gives the role of Saint Jimmy a creepily serpintine quality that is fascinating to watch.
With a disappointing lack of original musicals on Broadway this season, American Idiot is a much-needed breath of fresh air. Its message may seem tiresome to those eager to put the Bush administration behind us or those oversaturated by entertainment with an agenda, but almost anyone who has felt that America is a “land of make believe that don’t believe in me” will appreciate the effort, even if it leaves your ears ringing by the end.