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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
By Jon Magaril
Audiences could also close their eyes, listen, and have a fantastic time. For lovers of the Green Day album, they get every song plus choice additions. New orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Next to Normal's Tony-winning composer Tom Kitt expand the songs' emotional palette yet honor the original's intentions. Percussion has taken the focus from electric guitars, giving more room for live vocals and thumping action.
For the many theatergoers who aren't fans of punk-influenced rock, the Ahmanson considerately offers ear plugs. I recommend the unmuffled experience. Most every song lands. Brian Ronan's sound design allows for undistorted volume to get the blood pumping without punishing the ears. Lyrics can be heard clearly.
Like most touring shows at the Ahmanson, the quality control impresses. Very few bells and whistles have been stripped from the Broadway template. The balance, though, has shifted. The rich inner lives of the original leads drew us in as a countervailing force to the aggressive beats and postures. Each cast member's individualized movements were crafted by Hoggett from emotions they'd expressed in exercises. The current cast gives off a better-adjusted vibe that doesn't always jibe with the loneliness that dominates the lyrics. They generate the darker emotions by committing to the muscular motions. It's a more external experience but effective.
Broadway replacement Van Hughes has kept the reins as Johnny, whose plan to hightail it out of town launches the bare-bones plot. Hughes finds more opportunities for movement than his predecessor. This creates a stronger bridge to the constant motion around him. He handles the few spoken words as opportunities to entertain rather then reveal. His Johnny is a disarming jester in the mode of Green Day front man and main lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong. Their resemblance has been emphasized for the tour.
The album - and its stage adaptation - clearly has autobiographical elements. The lead figure, the Jesus of Suburbia is caught between the rage of alter ego/antagonist St Jimmy (Joshua Kobak) and the loving embrace of Whatsername (Gabrielle McClinton). The trio adapts easily for the stage. Playing up an overt connection to Armstrong adds a layer that makes sense, commercially and artistically.
But the album lacks the variety of roles and incidents in the original Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar recordings. The daunting challenge to craft the rest of the scenario has not been entirely overcome. The characters Mayer and Armstrong have added for the theater — Johnny's buddies Will (Jake Epstein) and Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) plus their girlfriends Heather (Leslie McDonel) and the Extraordinary Girl (Nicci Claspell) — are underdeveloped. The schematic set-up carries the show through a near-flawless first half, but the follow-though falls flat. Sometimes productions use a tour to redress problems. That hasn't happened here.
As Will, poor Epstein is forced to spend much of the show on a couch. He takes center stage towards the finale only because the couch has been moved there. There's promise in this: Will's attempts to do the right thing by the pregnant Heather render him inert. For too much of the show though, Will has no will. Even the songs that deal with his situation are mostly sung by a glib alter ego. Heather at least is active, but confusingly so. She connects somewhat randomly with the baby, upscale products, and a rock-n-roller.
Campbell's Tunny gets out of town and then out of the country. After seeing a comically staged recruiting commercial, he ditches Johnny to become a soldier. In the show's Berkeley tryout, Tunny was depicted as a bit of a geek, so his vulnerability to the satirical hucksterism of becoming a masculine babe magnet was believable. On Broadway, Stark Sands' Tunny was a beautiful naif. Campbell's Tunny seems made of army material from the start, deflating the extended come-on which now plays like a bad Hair cut-out. Mayer must know there's a problem here, but ever-changing casting strategies haven't fixed it. A stunning sequence is given over to Tunny's reaction to his injuries. Like Will, he has nothing new to play for the last half of the performance.
Fidelity to the album — every song appears in its original order — creates the biggest obstacle. The climax “Homecoming,” a long suite of songs inspired in structure and some chord sequences by The Who's revolutionary “A Quick One. While He's Away,” doesn't build dynamically when the show requires it. One of the pieces, the snide “Rock and Roll Girlfriend,” distracts at the worst possible moment and should have been placed earlier or cut.
What Mayer may lack as a scenarist, he makes up for here as a visionary director. With all due to respect to Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, the Four Season's Greatest Hits and their ilk, American Idiot is the best theatricalization of an album yet. This galvanizing production should be seen by fans of Green Day, contemporary dance, and pure theatre artistry.