Tag Archives: Steven Buchanan

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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Enjoying Is Easier Than Understanding “The Pride”

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Review:  The Pride

By Perry Tannenbaum

Back in the late 1950s, Philip has decided that his deep feelings for Oliver are a repugnant disease rather than a natural attraction. But in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, there is another Philip, 50 years later in 2008, who is also crazy about Oliver. Since there are no longer any prohibitions or taboos against homosexuality, Philip now wishes to have a strong and exclusive relationship with Oliver, who still loves him.

Yet as we quickly see in the Queen City Theatre Company production, now at Spirit Square through Saturday, there is still a catch. Exclusivity is under siege. When we first encounter the modern-day Oliver, Philip will walk in on him moments after a casual hookup has gone sour with a sex worker who has dressed up in a Nazi uniform for their sadistic tryst. Finding his wayward partner in this compromising state hardens Philip’s resolve to move out of the apartment they’re sharing, so he leaves.

More radical measures are necessary in 1958. Philip goes to a Doctor who will crush the so-called perversion that lurks inside. Obviously, there is something sinister about this Doctor, augmented by Emily Eudy’s lighting design. We might find a more pointed message embedded in Campbell’s curious 1958-2008 juxtapositions: he means us to see that the sexual adjustment Doctor is a kind of Nazi – because he and the sex worker both reinforce Philip’s feeling that his relationship with Oliver is wrong, and because they are both played by the same actor.

And there you have The Pride in a nutshell, a colorfully told pair of stories, liberally sprinkled with humor, which yields up its messages obliquely through its strange juxtapositions. Because the same actors do both Philips and both Olivers, we likely assume they’re the same souls in two different eras. If they stand before us more than speculatively, reincarnated in our current millennium, then those 1958 blokes need to hurry up and die in order to reach their late 20s or early 30s just 50 years later.

Trouble is, for anybody who wishes to “get” The Pride, Campbell is as content to leave the question of what we’re seeing as open as the question of what our takeaway should be. Enjoying the show comes more easily, for director Glenn T. Griffin has brilliantly cast his men. Steven Buchanan brings an urbane twinkle to the free-spirited Olivers, yet there is a predatory edge to his persistent pursuit. We see something more intense than resistance from Cory Collins as the two Philips in reaction to the Olivers, closer to absolute loathing – some of it directed toward himself.

So this tightly-wound, comparatively starchy guy will snap unexpectedly, and Collins, Buchanan, and Griffin conspire to stage that moment superbly. What often cools the momentum established by Buchanan and Collins are the scenes with the two Sylvias. In 1958, she’s Philip’s wife, instrumental in bringing her husband close to Oliver, a children’s book author that she’s illustrating for; and in 2008, she’s an actress and Oliver’s close confidante.

Wearing two different Barbi Van Schaick wigs that help us to quickly differentiate between the two eras, Katie Addison is credible enough as the two Sylvias – but she’s only fitfully intelligible. Sifting through Addison’s British accent is so difficult that I could fully lose my grasp on what was happening when she was onstage.

No such problems when Michael Harris came along for his two bizarre roles. When Harris’s arms and wrists go limp as he switches from Nazi role-playing to the sex worker’s everyday personality, it’s an absolute hoot, amplified by Beth Killion’s radically contrasting costume designs. On the other hand, Harris was slightly terrifying as The Doctor, hardly better than Nazis in his steely contempt for gays.

This is how it was in most of the ostensibly civilized world 50+ years ago, and this is what we could be going back to in the era of HB2.