Photos and Review by: Stephen McGill
How do you review a piece of your own history? That’s the question I went into the premiere of American Idiot in Toronto with. The original album was one of the catalyzing pieces of my history, that pushed me towards the music I now listen to today. How could I review the musical version, without seeing it through the lens of my own history? It’s a hard question to answer, but I was tasked with the assignment none the less so I took it.
Right off the bat though, this is a fantastic show. From the set design to the arrangements, to the actors themselves it is truly excellent. Leads Van Hughes, as Johnny, Jake Epstein as Will, Scott J. Campbell as Tunny, and Joshua Kobak as St. Jimmy all shine in their respective roles. With fantastic rock singing voices, they bring the album to life on stage. The supporting players all pull their weight as well and the show is carried on their shoulders.
The story opens in middle American suburban wasteland, and follows the lives of Johnny, Will, and Tunny as they all take their own path in an effort to escape, involving unplanned parenthood, drugs and nihilism, and the military. The story, while it held up well on the album, begins to buckle under the weight of the full show, additional songs slowing down the pace and dragging down the story. Truly, the show suffers from an extreme lack of character development, as a result of almost no narrative outside of the songs themselves. This robs the story of it’s real motivation, the only truly developed character is that of Johnny, who drives the story in his dealings with St. Jimmy, a combat booted Ziggy Stardust and pusher, and Whatshername, played ably by Gabrielle McClinton.
When the show works on stage, it works exceptionally well, tracks like Jesus Of Suburbia, St. Jimmy, Letterbomb and Homecoming all being especially well choreographed and sung. The on stage musicians kept up with the material exceptionally well and were the driving force keeping the show going, even if they were mostly obscured by shadow for the majority of the night. Occasionally the principle actors, mostly Epstein would take up an acoustic guitar, but you were never entirely sure if they were being properly played on stage or just synched.
This brings me to my problems with the show, while they are few there are some major ones. Some of the background choreography was distractingly awkward when the actors weren’t the spotlight on the piece, and it was easy to get pulled out of the moment. I also took some issue with the pacing of the second half of the play, most of the songs that were either added from 21st Century Breakdown, or B-Sides of American Idiot were shoehorned in here. This dramatically slowed down the show, and pulled focus from the only properly developed character. There are two pieces in particular which I took issue with though, first off Extraordinary Girl. This number plays out in a dream sequence complete with some excellent wire work, however the actress playing opposite Campbell is dressed first in full burka, then strips down to a Jasmine-from-Aladdin but pink ensemble. It’s strange and defies all character development before and after. The other number that bothered me was Wake Me Up When September Ends, this was always one of the worst songs on the album, and obvious attempt to cash in on the zeitgeist surrounding Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life). Not only is the choreography for this song bizarre, but what could have been a tender moment bringing the 3 main cast members back together, is largely wasted.
Despite those two numbers however, this is a great show, and I can fully recommend that anyone who had even a passing interest in the band would enjoy it tremendously. The show looks, and sounds great, and the Toronto Centre for the Arts is a great room for it. Just make sure you give yourself plenty of time before show time to get to the venue and park.