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Green Day’s “American Idiot” is a mixed bag at Beck

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Local theatres each tend to have a niche audience based on the venue’s play selection.  Dobama leans toward intellectual contemporary which are having their local premiers.  convergence-continuum tilts toward off-beat writers and plots, many with homosexual themes. Cleveland Public Theatre thrives on a diet of creative, often devised theater offerings.  Beck Center for the Arts is noted as the place for family offerings and scripts that appeal to the more conservative tastes of its older patrons (e.g., “Mary Poppins,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “She Loves Me.”)

In his attempt to attract new and younger audiences, Scott Spence, Beck’s artistic director, has sometimes staged contemporary musicals in their small Studio Theatre.  Musicals like “Altar Boy,”  “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” “Reefer Madness,” and “Evil Dead The Musical.”

This summer, hoping to entice large groups of younger audience members, who are turned on by the music of  Green  Day, a punk rock band, Beck is staging the group’s rock opera, “American Idiot,” in the venue’s large Mackey Theatre.  (Yes, Green Day, the creators of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Holiday,” “Jesus of Suburbia,” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”)

A version of the musical toured into PlayhouseSquare in April of 2014 for a very short run.  As I noted in that review, Green Day, Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, who created “American Idiot,” seemingly tried to duplicate the success of “Hair” and “Rent” in reflecting the societal image of the mid-to-late 2000s by creating a musical based on high-octane rock guitar riffs, vigorous singing and dancing, and what they termed “an evergreen narrative of teen rage, love and loss.”

Unfortunately, their creation, though it works on some levels, does not have the story line depth, the quality of music, or stage presence of “Hair” or “Rent.” We care little about the self-centered characters, who aren’t acting out for a cause, but out of self-centered egotism.

The tale takes place “in the recent past,” and concerns three guy friends, Johnny, Will and Tunny, who plan to escape their suburban “wasteland.”  As they are about to part, Will finds out that his girlfriend is pregnant.  He decides to stay home, leaving the other two to go on their way.

Life in the “big city” doesn’t turn out to be what the boys expected.  Johnny wanders down the road to drug addiction (supplied by the snarly St. Jimmy) and sexual depravity (with Whatsername).  Bored Tunny enlists in the army and goes off to fight in the Iraq war.

Tunny loses a leg, but falls in love with his nurse (The Extraordinary Girl).  Eventually, Johnny recognizes the error of his ways and returns to suburbia, as does Tunny with his new love.  The plot is thin, with no moral, no big causes to defy, and is basically rudderless.

The musical, which is overly long and filled with repetitive music, screams along on one emotion…angst!

In Beck’s production, under the musical direction of Bryan Bird, the music was high decibel and frenetic, not even mellowing out for the ballads.  The drummer, who created an over-powering presence, seemed to struggle at times with the beat and sometimes slipped up when changing tempo.  The score, which is synchronized to the beating heart, causes audience exhaustion.

The sung words are basically screamed and incomprehensible, which is probably not important in a rock concert, but are necessary when you are trying to tell a story.  The sound system seemed pushed to its capacity, resulting in muffled clarity.

The high point of the production is the choreography of Martin Céspedes.  The dancers in the touring production spent a lot of time in static simulated marching in place, or stepping forward and then freezing in place.  That was not the case with Céspedes’s dancers.  Using grunge and rock movements, gymnastic based actions, pony prancing, and creating some new choreographic vocabulary, the high energy movements worked.   The segment with the cast moving around the stage, on a simulated trolley car, was extremely creative.

The metal scaffold set design, basically a duplicate of the Broadway and touring show, worked well.  Trad Burns’ pulsing lighting helped set the frenetic pace.

Dan Folino created a one-dimensional Johnny who was on a seeming high at the beginning of the show, and collapsed as a burnt out druggie heap at the end.  His usually powerful voice was so strained from all the shouting that when he got to the ballad “When It’s Time” he sounded gravelly.   (It’s a good thing that Folino and the other leads have understudies as it would be amazing if they each didn’t get laryngitis during the show’s run.)

Of the leads, Jonathan Walker White was best able to create a textured character as Tunny.

Riley Ewing, who has a nice singing voice, spent the entire production seemingly sulking.

Joseph Virgo was properly snarly as the drug dealing St. Jimmy.

It is hoped that Spence’s strategy works and funnels much needed cash into the theatre’s coffers.  Saturday night’s open week audience was composed of the theatre’s usual gray-headed attendees, some of whom sat through the intermissionless show with their hands covering their ears, and pockets of “Green Day” groupies, who cheered mightily.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Devotees of Green Day should be turned on by Beck’s “American Idiot.”  It is a loud, brash musical which attempts to tell the tale of youthful disgust with modern day America.   The cast puts out full energy, the choreography is well designed and executed.   But, the thin one dimensional script, nearly impossible to understand lyrics, and redundant overly amplified music, will make this a less than a stellar theatrical experience for many.

“American Idiot” is scheduled to run through August 16, 2015 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to