Tag Archives: Ryan Stamey

Actor’s Theatre Makes “American Idiot” an Immersive Face-Melting Experience

Review: American Idiot

By Perry Tannenbaum

Young love and the ills of the world are so frequently the focus of rock musicals that we sometimes feel little need to decipher the words that jangle together with the actions and emotions we’re seeing onstage. This week is a particularly rockin’ and raucous week in Charlotte, with the 20-year revival tour of Rent and the new Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production of American Idiot opening on consecutive nights.

The original premiere of the Jonathan Larson musical and the 2004 Green Day album were separated by a mere eight years. While the young adult angst lived on, the world had completely changed: the old preoccupations with AIDS and AZT were supplanted by post-9/11 disillusionment and a scattershot scorn for suburbia, corporate America, the war-mongering George W, and the powerlessness of teens to change any of it.

Actor’s Theatre certainly knows powerlessness. Scheduled to open their new location on Freedom Drive last October, they had to be content to offer tours of their production-ready facility. Governmental regulations, foot-dragging and red tape have pushed back the opening to a still undetermined date in 2018. For a second consecutive show, Actor’s Theatre is relying on the kindness of Queens University and their Hadley Theatre, a facility they share with Myers Park Traditional School. Once you get past the decorous entrance and the antiseptic hallway, the black box venue actually possesses much of the off-Broadway feel we’ve come to expect from this company.

At the core of this production are a stage director, music director, choreographer, and a couple of lead actors who have figured prominently in past Actor’s Theatre productions at their demolished former home on Stonewall Street. They may be taking their exile from a permanent home personally, now that it’s prolonged to nearly 18 months, with an understandable urge to scream. Producing artistic director Chip Decker didn’t appear to be worried about reining any of them in, especially music director Ryan Stamey and choreographer Tod A. Kubo.

Stamey stands behind a keyboard at the edge of the stage, looking up at a six-piece band perched above the middle of the stage, occasionally leaning into a microphone and joining the vocalists. There’s a cellist embedded in the sextet whom I never heard. Likewise, the tropical strains of steel guitar, so clearly soothing in the background of the Broadway cast album on “Give Me Novacaine,” has been almost completely sandpapered away by Stamey’s heavy-metal approach.

The storyline, not exactly robust on the Grammy Award-winning concept album, has been somewhat bolstered by lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and stage director Michael Mayer in their book. Instead of a single Jesus of Suburbia, the musical has three. We have the original Johnny, who escapes the burbs only to encounter his hipster, heroin-shooting alter ego, St. Jimmy, and the possible love of his life, Whatsername.

At a neighborhood 7-Eleven, Johnny meets two other chums who have been crucified by suburbia – and turned into American Idiots – Will and Tunny. Only one of those two will use the bus tickets Johnny has purchased for the trio’s glorious breakaway. Will’s girlfriend, Heather, shows up and places his hand on her belly, obviating the need of saying to him that she’s pregnant. Apparently, punk rockers aren’t very articulate, for Tunny doesn’t do much of anything in the big city, mostly lying face down on a bed until lured by a US Army commercial to go off and fight in an unspecified foreign war.

With two more self-pitying saviors and two additional girlfriends worked into the story – Tunny eventually finds The Extraordinary Girl – Armstrong added more Green Day music to his score, conveniently taken from 21st Century Breakdown, the follow-up album to American Idiot. Their decibel level tamped down to barely bearable, the band is so face-meltingly loud that you have to admire the singers’ will to prevail. Decker doles out the most expressive and outré action to Johnny and St. Jimmy, keying electrifying performances from Matt Carlson and Jeremy DeCarlos respectively.

From his defiant and rebellious posturing in suburbia, Carlson became pure decadence in the city, simulating casual sex, shooting dope, and reeling around in a stupor as he sang. To contrast with this charismatic dissipation, DeCarlos had to take extreme measures to strike us as Johnny’s inner Beelzebub. There has always been a physical resemblance between DeCarlos and Jimi Hendrix, and I had to suspect that St. Jimmy would be the role to set it loose. Costume designer Carrie Cranford audaciously joined in the conspiracy, supplying a flamboyant jacket that evokes the Hussar military jacket Hendrix sported back in the late ‘60s. There wasn’t a headband or a Mexican bandit’s sombrero in the outfit, but the outrageous hairdo more than compensated, so puffed and straightened that I didn’t notice the thin dangling braids at first.

Coupled with this look were spell-casting gesticulations that went beyond the Wicked Witch of the West and World Wide Wrestling in their shamelessness, and I’ve never heard DeCarlos sing with such ferocity before, though there are also seductive and manic moments for St. Jimmy. Where exactly in this charismatic performance the ministrations of Kubo’s choreography began was difficult for me to divine, but the choreographer should definitely get a large proportion of the credit for making this American Idiot such an immersive, visceral experience. Like Actor’s Theatre general manager Martin Kettling told us in his curtain speech, the ensemble frequently used the platform looming above the stage as a jungle gym, often joining the musicians at the top. Over and over, I saw daring dance moves that must have come after Kubo hopefully asked, “Can you try this?” in rehearsals.

Some of the most arresting action came from the women, differentiating the Charlotte American Idiot from the Broadway edition, where hard rock seemed to be the exclusive playpen of macho sexist louts. Nonye Obichere was particularly stunning as Whatsername, all Johnny could handle and more, singing and dancing with a dominatrix edge. As Heather, Lizzie Medlin was more bitchy and Gothic, upstaging Steven Buchanan, who was mostly confined to the vicinity of a sofa once Will grudgingly chose domesticity as his direction in life.

Grant Zavitkovsky was underpowered, undermiked, and largely unintelligible as Tunny in the early going, but those problems thankfully vanished by the time he enlisted. While the budgetary concessions Decker made in his set design worked well, the technical economies he adopted meant that Tunny’s wartime travails were far less catastrophic. No matter how well Grant Zavitkovskyperformed the role, The Extraordinary Girl couldn’t be nearly as extraordinary in her devotion.

There’s a self-critical bent in Armstrong’s leading men that is totally at odds with the striving, sentimental nobility and martyrdom of the Rent heroes and heroines. Lyrical and melodic takeaways from American Idiot aren’t as vivid or memorable as those you might find in the sassy “Out Tonight” or the anthemic “What You Own” that Larson crafted for his glorified squatters. I didn’t find myself nearly as much on the side of Armstrong’s troubled American Idiots, but I did feel they should be listened to. Even if I hadn’t known how passionately Carlson and DeCarlos felt about this music, I would have heard it in their voices and seen it in their actions.

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A Labor of Rockin’ Love and Face-Melting Fury

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Preview:  American Idiot

By Perry Tannenbaum

Anger, alienation, disillusionment, and frustration were all part of the high-octane fuel that powered Green Day’s punk rock opera, American Idiot, in 2004. The group’s first post-9/11 CD struck a chord, winning awards on both sides of the Atlantic, including Best Rock Album at the Grammys. The targets of the group’s wrath – media, suburbia, Bush Era militarism, and ubiquitous TV – remained fresh enough for Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and stage director Michael Mayer to transform the celebrated album into a Broadway musical in 201o.

Starting their second consecutive season in exile from their planned-and-purchased permanent home on Freedom Drive, still tangled up in a red tape mess of zoning, safety, and building regulations – on an existing building, mind you – Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has a bit of pent-up anger, frustration, and disillusionment of their own. They may be wrapping all of that into their incoming American Idiot grenade.

The Charlotte premiere opens in previews this week on the campus of Queens University, the second consecutive show that Actor’s Theatre has brought to Hadley Theater. Official opening night will happen next Wednesday.

ATC artistic director Chip Decker not only empathizes with the angst of American Idiot, he gets the band.

“I have loved Green Day’s music since the [1991] album Kerplunk,” Decker boasts. “American Idiot dropped in 2004, and I could not listen to it enough. I think we were all reeling still from 9/11, the wars, etc., and this album gave a release valve to many who were angry, scared, lost, disillusioned and looking for hope in a difficult time.”

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The leading men feel at least as deeply about the music as their director. In fact, you can gauge their respective ages by when they climbed aboard the Green Day bandwagon. Matt Carlson, who plays Johnny, the Jesus of Suburbia hero from the album, says he latched onto American Idiot when he was about 14, and that it was the first album he learned to play on guitar from beginning to end.

Jeremy DeCarlos, a mainstay in the finest Actor’s Theatre productions since 2004 –onstage or thrashing his guitar – plays Johnny’s alter ego, St. Jimmy, leading the suburban Jesus into citified debaucheries. He says he got the Green Day bug during the summer of 1994, when “Basket Case” was a hit single off the Dookie album.

“I felt like Billie Joe wasn’t just singing to me, but as me in a way,” DeCarlos recalls. “I ran out and bought the album and wore a hole into it. When my mother presented me with my first guitar, I told myself that if I ever learned how to play one song on it, it would be Green Day’s ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).’ It took me roughly a month, but the first song I ever learned on guitar was a Green Day song!”

So how does a punk rock opera with three characters become a musical that can fill a Broadway stage? Well, Armstrong and Mayer added new characters, and Green Day chipped in with more music, conveniently ripped off from 21st Century Breakdown, the follow-up album to American Idiot.

Now instead of one disgruntled Jesus itching to escape suburbia, there are three – Johnny, Will, and Tunny – along with three women. Johnny and Tunny do escape, respectively to the wicked city and the US Army, but Will won’t, dutifully staying behind when he learns that Heather (the only woman in the show with a name) is pregnant with his child. So yes, we get three depressing outcomes to wail over.

“The book is wafer thin, single ply generic toilet paper thin,” Decker admits, “but I feel like that was a very intentional choice. I was able to find my own voice and feelings in the album, and I think that is what the story lines do in this. They present a thought and feeling, but do not try and insist that the viewer (or listener) accept that view as the truth.”

And just because he reveres the music doesn’t mean that Carlson worships the suburban Jesus he’s delivering to us as the leading man. Johnny actually comes off as something of a jerk when Carlson describes him, and he isn’t sure we’ll like him: “He is the edgy, cocky punk guy you knew in high school who never did anything with his life.”

But the music! That draws a different reaction from the young rocker. Like many of Green Day’s faithful, Carlson was a bit leery and disappointed when he first heard that the punk band was taking their act to Broadway. Had to be an artistic sellout, right?

When he eventually encountered to final product, Carlson was pleasantly surprised. “The American Idiot album is so different versus the stage score,” he opines. “I love the simple punk rock sound of the album, but maybe because I’m into musical theatre, I like the stage version even better. On stage, the concept album is made more complete with the play script and music.”

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There’s more music in the musical, but all of it remains guitar-and-drum driven. Instead of muscling up with strings, winds, and brass, Broadway orchestrator/arranger Tom Kitt beefed up the sound with more voices and harmonies. You’ll hear a pronounced difference, to take just one example, if you listen to the Broadway cast album version of “Give Me Novacaine.”

The lyrics come through just a tad more clearly, as if we’re in a theater rather than concert hall. The sound of the steel guitar is noticeably richer, with a more relaxed Hawaiian flavor. With the onset of the thrashing section, the crescendo is more dramatic, louder drums and added male voices yield an anthemic thrust. Reaching the soothing outro, we hear – can it be true? – a group of female backups caressing our ears.

But hold on a second. The prospect of seeing ATC musical director Ryan Stamey lead a Broadway-sized band into Hadley Theater isn’t any more likely than the possibility we’ll see over three dozen flat-screen TV monitors stuck up on the back wall. One violin and one cello are promised, but the instrumental congregation will be trimmed from eight to five, a definite U-turn toward true punk rock intimacy.

Yes, we’ll see two guitars, just like on Broadway.

Decker has been known to strap on a bass guitar himself, and he often lurks in the wings as a sound designer when he isn’t acting or directing. One of the most admirable Actor’s Theatre achievements over the years has been their ability to deliver the youthful energy of such high voltage musicals as Hedwig and Rock of Ages without repulsing their graying subscribers who prefer decibel levels below triple digits.

“You know, this is always a tough balancing act,” Decker says, “because our bands are legit power musicians who want everything to go to 11! But there is so much story in the lyrics of musicals, that if you can’t hear the words, you don’t know the story. So yeah, keeping it balanced and rocking is the challenge. Our cast is doing a great job telling their story, and I think people will dig it. Or you can just go and rock the fuck out. Either way, your face will be melted.”

The Nerd Who Terrorized New Jersey

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Theater Reviews:  The Toxic Avenger and Pride and Prejudice

By Perry Tannenbaum

I’m not sure how or when such epithets as “Armpit of the East” or “Scrotum of the Nation” rained down on New Jersey, but they were certainly commonplace before the onset of The Sopranos or Chris Christie. It’s also clear that when Lloyd Kaufman and Joe Ritter cooked up their 1984 screenplay for The Toxic Avenger, they weren’t intending to prettify the Garden State’s battered image. About the only love they showed for Jersey was shooting the film there.

A mere 24 years elapsed before Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, following their successful collaboration on Memphis, hooked up on a Toxic musical adaptation. The record-breaking reception of the show in New Brunswick, before its off-Broadway transfer in 2009, only underscored how highly Jerseyites cherish their notoriety.

DiPietro liberally refashions Kaufman’s original plot, but political corruption, organized crime, unconscionable pollution, and unchecked violence are still among its hallmarks. Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, newly resurrected on Freedom Drive after its recent homelessness, embraces all of these horrors with the merry glee it applied to Evil Dead The Musical seven years ago. Billy Ensley directed that 2009 gorefest on Stonewall Street, but ATC artistic director Chip Decker takes the reins here, reminding us that crass sci-fi musical parodies are at the core of this company’s DNA.

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Journeying from screen to stage, Melvin Ferd the Third has lost his signature janitorial mop, but he’s still a hopeless nerd and still smitten by the blind Sarah, who is now a librarian. The new Melvin is an environmental crusader from the get-go, and his plunge into an oozing drum of green toxic goo is far more malignant, ordered by corrupt Tromaville mayor Babs Belgoody. Where does Melvin find the goods on Mayor Belgoody’s polluting schemes? At the library, of course, cleverly filed away by Sarah where they are least likely to be found: among the important policy speeches of Michele Bachmann.

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Something underhanded seems to have occurred here, since Bachmann didn’t achieve her peak infamy until the 2012 election cycle. Suspicion falls on the prankish Decker, who compounds his violations of DiPietro’s script by introducing the image of Donald Trump later in the evening. Hopefully, that glorified groper will be forgotten by the time the Avenger concludes his rampages on November 12.

Yes, if you didn’t already know, what doesn’t kill Melvin makes him Toxie, the avenging mutant monster. This is exactly where Actor’s Theatre upstages the off-Broadway production once again. In 2009, Ensley simply had the luxury of a better pool of actors to choose from for Evil Dead. This year, Decker enjoys no luxuries whatsoever. ATC and City Hall couldn’t dot all the i’s on permits for the new location at 2219 Freedom Drive in time for opening night last Wednesday, so Decker & Co. were obliged to move next door to Center City Church & The Movement Center at 2225 Freedom.

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On very short notice. So the set designer is listed as Dire Circumstance in the playbill while other members of the design team have vanished altogether. Whether by accident or design, then, Decker doesn’t make the mistake that plagued the off-Broadway show: overproduction. In the New York version, when Melvin emerged from the chemical dumpsite as Toxie, the green carbuncled mask that covered his head was not only horrific, it robbed actor Nick Cordero of all further facial expression.

Jeremy DeCarlos doesn’t have to combat that handicap. As cool, graceful, and intelligent as DeCarlos has always seemed onstage, I expected both the nerdy Melvin and the homicidal Toxie to be difficult stretches for him. Clearly, I had no idea how well DeCarlos could channel the dopey sound and body language of Jerry Lewis as the socially inept earth scientist. When he emerged from the flimsy façade of chemical drums as Toxie, there were some wrappings on his arms to offer a semblance of might, but it was Decker at the soundboard who offered the more telling boost, amping up DeCarlos’ voice and synthesizing his monster roar.

No, the wrappings and the roars don’t close the gap between DeCarlos and fearsomeness – but that’s another reason why his Toxie is so much more hilarious than the more technically polished off-Broadway version, which often forgot it was a spoof. Leslie Giles certainly isn’t forgetting her spoofery as Sarah, helpless ingénue or aggressive vamp as the occasion demands – and her blind stick shtick with the hapless Melvin is a corny gift that keeps on giving. Sarah’s big number, “My Big French Boyfriend,” struck me as the best in the show.

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Lisa Hugo, who was so precisely calibrated in the complex leading role of Stage Kiss earlier this year, the last ATC production at Stonewall Street, gets to loosen up in multiple roles. When she isn’t the melodramatic, megalomaniacal Mayor, she’s usually Melvin’s disapproving Mom. These two nasty women turn out to be old enemies from their school days, so their “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore” confrontation deep in Act 2 was a manic reminder of a similar duet in the Jekyll & Hyde musical. Ma Ferd also gets an effective “All Men Are Freaks” duet with Sarah.

Ryan Stamey and Dominique Atwater divvy up nearly all the remaining roles, more than I could keep track of, with Matthew Blake Johnson subbing for Atwater on opening night. Somebody needs to terrorize Sarah, toss Melvin into the toxic goo, get their asses kicked by Toxie, scurry around with missing limbs, and represent the hordes of Tromavillians who idolize the grotesque mutant. Stamey and Johnson performed every one of these worthy missions, and more, with the suave sophistication you would expect.

Yes, the middle school auditorium atmospherics of the Movement Center hall are somewhat against the grain of the gorey Toxic Avenger irreverence, but it served better than expected for what turns out to be a unique guerilla theatre project. If you arrive early for one of the remaining performances, you might get a brief tour of the new ATC space next door. What’s going on now on Freedom Drive bodes well for the company and the resourceful artists who make it go.

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Jon Jory is best known as the artistic director who brought renown to the Humana Festival and the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville – and widely believed to have penned Keely and Du, Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage, and Anton in Show Business under the penname of Jane Martin. When it comes to adapting Jane Austen, whose Pride and Prejudice is currently on view at Pease Auditorium in a CPCC Theatre production, Jory is no dilettante. He has also adapted Sense and Sensibility and Emma.

Even if all the subtleties aren’t always pointed under Heather Wilson-Bowlby’s poised direction, it becomes obvious that Jory’s adaptation preserves the style and thrust of Austen’s liveliest masterwork. Most of the credit goes to Moriah Thomason as Austen’s prejudging heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, though it’s hard to deny she is amply counterbalanced by the hauteur of Brian Logsdon as Fitzwilliam Darcy. Thomason unveiled her elegance in the ATC production of Stick Fly back in February. Here she adds vivacity and wit, so I couldn’t get enough of her.

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We see where Elizabeth gets her wit from in Tony Wright’s slightly jaundiced portrait of her father, and Anne Lambert’s rendition of Mrs. Bennet has more than enough vanity, giddiness, and silliness to distribute among the younger Bennet sibs. My chief disappointment was the hoarseness that afflicted Lexie Simerly as Liz’s elder sister Jane. If only she could have borrowed some extra decibels from Iris DeWitt, whose towering presence made the imperious Lady Catherine De Bourgh a perfect victim of Elizabeth’s punctiliously polite sass.