Saturday, May 18, 2013

"American Idiot" energizes Straz Center in Tampa

  No matter how much you love musical theater, you have to be wary when Broadway takes on punk music. The kind of polished appeal of a Broadway show and the rough intensity of punk simply seem antithetical.

A scene from "American Idiot"
  The current US tour of “American Idiot” -- which is at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa through Sunday --   banishes such wariness.
   “American Idiot” is of course built around the 2004 album by Green Day, a sort of rock opera that details the lives of young. angry suburban kids. Broadway director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening.” “Thoroughly Modern Millie”) worked with Green day front man Billie Joe Armstrong to transfer the music from disc to stage.
   The show feels like something brand-new right from the start. The set looks like yet another of black-gray walls with metal scaffolding deals that theater designers use to evoke urban grit, but when the dozens of TV monitors scattered across the back drop start flashing Bush-era images it immediately feels fresh.
   And when the great on-stage band – spread out across the stage, not tucked into a corner – churns out the nasty opening guitar chords of the title song and the exuberant cast snarls out the lyrics, you know that this is punk music taking over Broadway, not Broadway taking over punk music.
   You probably won’t be able to follow the plot in any detail unless you know the album well. A lot of the lyrics are indecipherable, and the snippets of dialogue (credited to Mayer and Armstrong) are well-written but aren’t enough to fill in the narrative.
   But you get the gist and you feel the music, and that’s plenty.
   The cast is young -- some are still in college – but they’re all strong actors, singers and dancers. Friday night’s performance even featured an understudy (Brandon Kalm) in a central role of Johnny, the character who seems to be patterned on Armstrong’s stage persona, and he turns in really charismatic performance.
  “American Idiot” won Tony Awards for set and lighting design, which it deserved, but the choreography is just as impressive. Steven Hoggett has designed intricate dances that look carefree. There’s also a gorgeous and astounding aerial dance segment.
   The one disappointment was the curtain call in which the ensemble – each member strumming an acoustic guitar – sang a bland version of “Good Riddance,” Green Day’s most familiar mainstream hit. It’s a good song but a far too lackadaisical a choice. It felt like something you’d see on parents night at a performing arts high school.

Details: 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, May 18, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, May 19, Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa. Tickets: $44.50 plus service charge and up. Information: 813-229-7827 or

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