Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's recent review of Newsies
This season at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), audiences have been presented with two very different musicals as part of the Mainstage lineup. Though both Carousel and American Idiot deal with an angry, lost leading character, they couldn't be less similar stylistically. American Idiot provides the student performers with the opportunity to cut their teeth on a modern, hard-edged theater piece. However, the immense talent onstage and behind the scenes at CCM can't salvage a show with little depth or cohesion.
American Idiot is an expanded stage adaptation of the rock band Green Day's concept album of the same name. The story focuses on three socially detached friendsJohnny, Will, and Tunnyin a post September 11th world of hopelessness. Johnny and Tunny abandon suburban life for the big city, while Will stays behind to be with his pregnant girlfriend. Quickly sick of the city, Tunny joins the military and goes off to war. Meanwhile, Johnny gets hooked on drugs, and Will's girlfriend leaves him. They all search for meaning in their lives that seem to be going nowhere.
The book by Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong and original Broadway director Michael Mayer is severely lacking in character development and emotional or story depth. With only minimal dialogue, the story is communicated almost exclusively through direction rather than lyrics or a traditional musical book. Additionally, none of the characters are particularly likeable, which makes it difficult to emotionally invest in their stories.
Most of the songs come from Green Day's "American Idiot" album, but a few are pulled from other Green Day material. With music by the entire band and lyrics by Mr. Armstrong, there are solid punk rock songs, some with catchy tunes and introspective lyrics. A number of the songs, such as "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "21 Guns," "Wake Me Up When September Ends," and the closing "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)," will be well known to many younger theatergoers and are quality rock songs.
CCM Director Aubrey Berg presents the show as more of a theater piece than it was on Broadway, where it resembled a rock concert at times. Mr. Berg certainly elicits committed performances from his cast, and brings out what depth there is from the thinly drawn characters. His staging of "Holiday" is especially effective, and there are many subtle yet effective details in his blocking throughout. Student choreographer Samantha Pollino captures the angst and rebellion of the characters with grunge-style non-traditional dancing. Steven Goers leads a great sounding eight-piece on-stage band.
As Johnny, Ben Biggers provides versatile vocals and throws himself into the role, which is quite different from the others he has played at CCM. Chris Collins-Pisano (slacker Will) and Louis Griffin (solider Tunny) supply crystal clear singing and non-verbal cues conveying the introspection of the characters. As St. Jimmy, the personification of Johnny's drug addition, John Battagliese is a seductive, looming presence and skillfully tackles the vocal challenges of the part. The women have less to do than the men in this show, but Clara Cox (Whatsername), Shauna Topian (Heather), and Cameron Anika Hill (The Extraordinary Girl) are all strong singers and make the most out of their rather vague characters. The seventeen member ensemble brings great energy and adaptability to the show as well.
The scenic design by Thomas C. Umfrid has multi-tiered scaffolding against a backdrop of a toppled Statue of Liberty, again referencing the brokenness of a post 9/11 New York. To each side of the stage is a pile of rubble with multiple TV sets that display videos that help convey the setting of each scene. Jillian Coratti's costumes capture the raw, anti-establishment tone of the show. The lighting by CJ Mellides is varied and well-suited for both the theater and rock elements of the musical, with nice touches on the bus effect. On opening night, there were microphone and balance issues with the sound.
While American Idiot may be a good show for fans of Green Day and some younger theatergoers, the lack of well-defined characters and story is likely to leave traditional theatergoers underwhelmed. CCM does all it can in applying its talent-laden cast and personnel to make the show the best it can be, but there are limits given the material.
American Idiot continues at CCM from until March 13, 2016. For more information, visit www.ccm.uc.edu.