Pompano Beach's "American Idiot" disappoints
Photos by Hali Neal, program design Pompano Beach Cultural Center
Director Doug Wetzel somehow turned Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer’s hauntingly beautiful rock opera into soulless dreck with few redeeming qualities on Nov. 16 at the Pompano Beach Cultural Center.
Now, before you come at me with your torches and pitchforks, know that before I worked in the music business, I was a theater brat (like an army brat, just with theater instead). I grew up in theaters and fine arts camps around South Florida because my dad is a stage actor/director/theater professor. I didn't think twice about becoming a Shakespearean encyclopedia by the time I was a teenager or being cast in A Midsummer Night's Dream when I was maybe 8 or 9 or how odd it was for an 8 or 9 year old to have a favorite unanimated musical (it's “Grease”, by the way. I was obsessed. I even got the VHS with the original script). As I got older, I acted in several local musical theater productions. So it's safe to say I know what should be going on from both sides of the aisle.
I’ll start with the musical part of the show. Green Day’s original album, 2004’s “American Idiot”, is an important album to me for so many reasons. One of these reasons is because I identified with the anger at the George W. Bush administration central to the time the album was released. I was 14 in 2004 and therefore powerless to influence any kind of real change. So “American Idiot” was one of those albums for me that I played over and over in my light blue portable CD player until I made myself sick of it. I know this album note for note. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on who’s reading this review) that also allows me to hear every time someone in the production was consistently late on vocals, missed notes or flourishes, or just lacked the soul necessary to play punk rock music.
Which brings me to my first point: the musical director didn’t hire a rock band to play the music for a rock opera. Let me repeat that so it sinks in. A ROCK BAND WAS NOT HIRED TO PLAY MUSIC IN A PUNK ROCK OPERA. This was glaring oversight number one. There’s nothing wrong with hiring classical musicians if, say, you’re putting on a musical like “Evita” or “Phantom of the Opera”. In fact, most would say it’s a necessity. There is, unfortunately, a huge difference in the way rock musicians (note: I’m not talking about metal here, metal and classical have more in common structurally than most people realize) and classical musicians play. Classical musicians are mostly concerned with hitting every note efficiently, not necessarily with feeling… unless their sheet music tells them to. Rock musicians, especially punk rock musicians, are more about getting a feeling across, whether it sounds perfect or not. Sometimes that feeling comes off more polished, sometimes it comes off as grimy as the way punk rock started. For a story about friends torn apart by addiction and the humdrum life of suburbia, the music was so vanilla that I found myself thinking of both the Say Anything song “No Soul” and craving a frame of reference from the Broadway soundtrack of “American Idiot” (which is exactly what I did during intermission and on the long drive back to Miami). For a production that depends mostly on the music for its ethos, this is an enormous flaw.
I knew I was in for a long night when the opening number, the title track (and one of my favorite songs), included two actors smiling and imitating anal sex as if they were in on some wink-wink-nudge-nudge joke and not singing a line that had very little to actually do with homo- or bisexuality: “maybe I’m the faggot America/I’m not part of a redneck agenda”. Considering the next two lines are “now everybody do the propaganda/and sing along in the age of paranoia…”, it’s clear that the actual meaning of the lyrics and content of the play in general sailed over Wetzel’s head.
The amount of smiling in such a dark play was a bush league level mistake that reminded me of watching an elementary school production (that is, if elementary school students were mentally equipped to handle the topics raised in “American Idiot”). One of the things that bothers me most as an entertainment connoisseur and writer is when people don’t do their research, especially now when it’s as easy as typing your query into Google. It’s even worse when they fail to probe beyond surface clichés.
The latter was the case with “American Idiot”. Instead of trying to understand the anger and desperation behind both the lyrics and the punk rock ethos in general, it’s like they watched the video for Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” (a song which I also love, but on the surface, just looks like pissed off teenagers annoying people at the mall) with all its askew ties, eyeliner, and plaid and decided that was all punk rock was. Then it was like their thought process jumped to, “oh! I know! Middle fingers! Punk rock always has a ton of middle fingers… let’s throw a bunch of those in there too!” And there was copious use of the middle finger, but for no reason most of the time, so it felt more “hey, look how edgy I am!” instead of “God, I’m pissed off at the world for reasons x, y, and z and fuck you for trying to tell me I’m wrong and I should get over it,”
The rest of the story was made nearly incomprehensible by the rushed pacing. The only saving graces were Dmitri Gann’s Johnny, Hilleah Neve’s Whatsername, Jordana Forrest’s Heather, and Conor Walton's St. Jimmy, but even Johnny and Whatsername’s story was incomprehensible until Gann shed his nerves in the second act.
Other than Forrest’s Heather, Walton's St. Jimmy was the only one who brought any feeling to his role. His turn as St. Jimmy was exactly how I’d imagined the character in my head and I was elated any time he was on stage. He was one of only two in the cast who seemed to get how dark his role was and relished it. His vocals were the best out of the cast and I hope to see more of him in the future. Using the candy Smarties to represent the drugs St. Jimmy gave out and also threw to the audience was a stroke of genius for the low-budget production.
As to Eric Daniel O' Keefe’s unnamed “sex machine”, I didn’t believe a word he said and that’s a problem if he’s supposed to be this heartthrob character. Then there’s Patrick Rodriguez’s Tunney. It’s hard to know where to start: I’ve seen death scenes less dramatic in music videos and the nighttime soaps I watch, he was consistently late on almost every song he soloed on, and the way he treated “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”. Those last two may be director influenced, but, at least in the case of what looked to be a death scene, it’s hard to imagine any director guiding an actor to be as overwrought as Rodriguez was.
The aforementioned music video with better acting I spoke of was “The Ghost Of You” by My Chemical Romance, who, ironically enough, they played a song from during intermission. Mikey and Gerard Way are not actors, but I still won’t watch “The Ghost of You” music video because their respective acting jobs still haunt me. I kept wishing Rodriguez would take it down a notch, but that never happened. If
anything, he just ramped up the drama unnecessarily every time he was on stage. Not to mention that, after all that, it was revealed that his death scene wasn’t a death scene, just an “I’m mortally injured” scene (Tenney loses his leg). As for “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, it bothered me for all four minutes and 27 seconds of it that, before the injury scene, he stood in one spot on a platform obviously meant for walking. “Boulevard”’s opening line is literally “I walk a lonely road/the only one I’ve ever known…” and the chorus continues with the words “I walk alone…”. If you’re provided with a platform, you should actually go along with the song and actually walk.
After the first hour, I was anxious for “American Idiot” to be over so I could go home and sleep. This was by far the most disappointing theater production I’ve seen in recent memory and I’d hesitate before seeing a production directed by Wetzel again.