This 'American Idiot' a little too eager to please

Some things have happened to Johnny, Tunny and St. Jimmy since "American Idiot" was last in Chicago in February 2012. The Equity actors who were playing those roles in the first national tour of the Green Day musical were dismissed and replaced by a non-union cast, even though the physical production remains the same and the top ticket price is still $85. Perchance you know that drill: "(Insert actor's name) has just graduated, (insert actor's name) is thrilled to make her National Tour debut" and so on and so forth. The star of this production, Alex Nee, isn't even a graduate production. He's actually a senior (on leave) at Northwestern University.

I like to think that if I were Billie Joe Armstrong, sitting on a pile of Green Day royalties, I would not let that happen to a show that was so potent and powerful and, most crucially of all, painfully beautiful in its original Broadway production and on its stellar first national tour. But, well, business is business. Shows move down the food chain, and "American idiot" requires about 20 performers. The characters all are young, and musicianship is a big factor in casting. Anyone who knows the business can see why this happened; it's good for smaller towns that might not otherwise get to see the show. I feel otherwise about downtown Chicago.

If you are new to "American Idiot," which was far and away the best Broadway musical of 2010 even though the Tony went to "Memphis", let us refresh a few points. This is, in essence, a theatrical treatment of the 2004 Green Day album of the same name. It is a revelation in many ways, pulling out the inherent theatricality of Green Day's music and the narrative richness of Armstrong's lyrics. Michael Mayer, the director and co-writer, added just enough of a character-driven story to carry the show but not too much that one loses the crucial sense of collage, soundscape and expressionistic treatment of a moment in American history (and a moment in most of our youths) when choices and paths opened up but we were too confused to know which ones to take — and, alas, too inexperienced to understand that many of them won't open again.

"American Idiot" feels fresh, raw and angry. But the material also is fused with a deep sense of longing. Green Day has plenty of punk bonafides but could also write what theater people think of as sticky melodies. That explains why "Wake Me Up Before September Ends" and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" play in my head as I write.

I was back at the Cadillac Palace partly out of a duty to report on this new cast, but also because "American Idiot" is a repeatable pleasure. Just as one could enjoy the album any number of times, so one can enjoy this show again and again. Its appeal is, to no small extent, sensual.

So. Is this production just as good? In a word, no. The new cast is sweet, energetic and passionate. Some of its members — most notably Alyssa DiPalma as Whatsername, when she stops playing with her hair — are enigmatic. Casey O'Farrell, who plays Will, has a beautiful, light voice and he is the one singer in this show who really brings something that feels all his own, although the singing generally is competent.

Nee is a talented, handsome, hugely promising young fellow but, well, roles like Johnny require a certain gravitas that usually comes with experience. That sheer force of personality is missing — which is, really, the overall problem with the entire show now. The cast tries very hard — with the exception of Trent Saunders, whose problematic St. Jimmy almost vanishes into the back of the set, he so lacks palpable personality. But "American Idiot" requires a complex mix of energy and cynicism. And, speaking generally, there's just not enough pain on display. That's hard to evoke when you're excited to be on your first national tour.

Note that you're reading the thoughts of someone who has seen this show four times, a show in which he feels greatly invested, with all the comparatives that the process of watching duplications of duplications inevitably evoke. If you have never seen "American Idiot," this likely is your last chance to see Mayer's staging (and Steven Hoggett's brilliant movement), and that is a fine way to spend 90 minutes of your life. Personally speaking, I'm now ready to be just a few feet away from Johnny, Will and Tunny in some raw, hot little Chicago theater, with Green Day's music shaking the walls and the heart.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

'American Idiot'
When:
Through Sunday
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $18-$85 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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