I recently spent three days in Louisville at the 34th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. Actors Theatre of Louisville annually assembles a lineup of productions that offers a fascinating cross-section of contemporary American theater.
I found this year’s array to be an especially pleasing collection of works: It included two excellent comedies, a thoughtful drama, two experimental performance pieces from creative ensembles and an inventive piece to showcase interns (and a Louisville hotel/museum showplace). A bill of 10-minute plays was clever and creative, and only a musical play was a disappointment.
Critic's PickAs I ate dinner on Tuesday evening before attending a performance at Dayton’s Victoria Theatre, my server asked, “Did you hear that Green Day is performing next door?” I had to set her straight. “Well, not exactly. Green Day’s music is being performed next door — it’s a Broadway show that uses the tunes from their American Idiot recording.” I caught the opening night of a three-day gig (through Thursday, March 14) by an energetic touring company that’s recreating the Tony Award-nominated American Idiot: The Musical. If you have time to make an hour north on I-75, you won’t be disappointed.
Green Day’s powerful Punk score — their 2004 album was conceived as a “Punk Rock Opera” — is the perfect soundtrack for the story of three disaffected guys who take different downward spirals when confronted with the numbing boredom of everyday life, “alien nation,” as they sing in the opening number. Johnny is the central character, a wannabe musician who yearns to make it in the city; he convinces his buddies Will and Tunny to join him in escaping suburbia.
Their paths diverge quickly: Will’s girlfriend is pregnant, so he stays to sort things out; Tunny is quickly disaffected by urban life and captivated by dreams of military success; and Johnny, not quite willing to admit his loneliness, dreams about a girl he sees and gets caught by a drug dealer — who’s probably a figment of his imagination. Things don’t turn out well for any of them, and by show’s end they’re back home, chastened by the experience — Tunny’s leg lost in combat, Johnny’s ego shattered and Will’s relationship in ruins. But they seem to be more accepting of their fates. The curtain call features the entire company playing guitars and performing “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” a number that reflects their disillusion, reminiscence and (maybe) forward motion.
The current tour has a young cast (it’s a non-Equity tour) without a ton of experience, but that’s perfect for this show, which demands a stage full of angry energy. They hurtle through the 100-minute performance, diving right into the title tune with thrashing energy demanded by Green Day’s music. (For theater fans, it’s worth noting that Green Day’s music has been orchestrated and arranged by Tom Kitt, composer of the Tony Award-winning next to normal, a show that has a score with similar power.) Steven Hoggett’s pounding choreography captures the physicality of Rock stage performance, rendered rapidly and rhythmically with tons of repetitive angular motion.
Alex Nee, Casey O’Farrell and Thomas Hettrick, as Johnny, Will and Tunny, turn in credible performances of roles that don’t have a lot of depth — and that’s OK. American Idiot is more about emotions than storytelling, and they each capture that: Nee’s hallucinatory attraction to destructive behavior is convincing, O’Farrell’s frustration with being trapped and left behind is believable, and Hettrick’s dreams of heroism and his wake-up call to a damaged life are rendered credibly. Female roles are more stereotyped — two of them don’t even have names: Whatsername and The Extraordinary Girl — but Alyssa DiPalma, Jenna Rubah and Kennedy Caughell (as Heather, the mother of Will’s kid) have fine voices. DiPalma and Rubah have featured choreography (Rubah does an aerial ballet with Hettrick as he recovers in a military hospital) that is effective.
The touring production retains Christine Jones’s scenic design and Kevin Adams’s lighting design, both of which landed 2010 Tony Awards. The set has a floor-to-ceiling rear wall sporting two dozen video screens that support the action — from an opening barrage of mind-numbing, multi-channel news coverage to scene-to-scene punctuation with wry titles. Additionally, the screens are sometimes fed live imagery from an onstage camera, especially when St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders) entices Johnny into the world of addiction, but also during “Favorite Son,” Tunny’s late-night infomercial of military recruitment (performed with muscle-bound humor by Jared Young, backed up by four dancers in sparkling short dresses).
The grunge of American Idiot is made all the more vivid by the green velvet and gilt trim of the Victoria Theatre in downtown Dayton (138 North Main St.). While the nihilistic young men sing, “I don’t care if you don’t care,” I suspect that a lot of people will care about this show, one that reaches out and grabs audiences by the scruff of their necks and never lets up. But bear in mind: Only two more performances — Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m. Tickets ($46-$67, half-off student rush, day of show): 937-228-3630 or victoriatheatre.com.
The Mormons are coming! The Mormons are coming! No, not the one running for president (although he's showing up pretty often). It's the award-winning irreverent musical The Book of Mormon, which Broadway Across America announced this morning will be part of its 2013-2014 season at the Aronoff Center. The winner of nine Tony Awards (including the best musical of 2011) is a satirical look at two naive and idealistic Mormon missionaries who are sent to a remote Ugandan location where a nasty warlord is oppressing the villagers. Their clueless devotion, good-hearted but misguided — with a lot of very off-color humor — has made The Book of Mormon an unusual hit.It will come as no surprise to CityBeat readers that the guys behind this are Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of animated South Park, another outrageously irreverent look at contemporary life. Also involved was composer Robert Lopez, whose Avenue Q was another Broadway hit, this one featuring Sesame Street-styled puppets in very adult situations.
So it's almost Thanksgiving and you need to find some good theater before you can begin working on all the preparations for the big meal later next week. My recommendation — Evita at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Aubrey Berg, who has headed the musical theater training program at the University of Cincinnati for 24 years, directs the show about Eva Duarte Peron's rise to fame and power in Argentina and subsequent fall from grace (she died from cancer at 33).
New Stage Collective has announced it's shutting down operations after presenting Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music April 30-May 8. Producing Artistic Director Alan Patrick Kenny says the musical will be staged at Know Theatre of Cincinnati instead of the company's Main Street space.
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park Producing Artistic Director Ed Stern today announced that he will leave the esteemed regional theater after two more seasons, following the 2011-12 season, his 20th. Ed’s tenure at the Playhouse predates CityBeat’s coming into existence: He began in 1992, two years before CityBeat began publishing. I had the pleasure of writing about the recovery of the theater under Stern for EveryBody’s News and then for CityBeat; the Playhouse was in desperate financial straits when Stern and Executive Director Buzz Ward took over — a $1.25 million accumulated deficit.
Even as the Showboat Majestic opens another show this summer (The Art of Murder by Joe DiPietro kicks off tonight and continues through Aug. 28), it’s time to announce the ’boat’s 90th season in 2012, featuring an all-American slate of musicals and comedies to please patrons aboard America’s last showboat, a National Historic Landmark. Here’s the 2012 season:
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips, says, "Secrets can be good and bad." But there's one less secret today, now that he's announced the company's 17th season, eight productions, kicking off in July.