By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Turns out Green Day and Molly Ivins had a lot in common. The musical American Idiot at the Winspear Opera House and the one-woman play Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins at Fort Worth's Stage West both let their central characters rage at the rodeo clowns who get elected to high office in our fair land. Both shows also see the depressing humor in the red, white and blue dumbth of our popular culture.
"Calling out to idiot America!" sing the young stars of the raucous, though not raw, rock opera, a 2010 Broadway hit based on the pop-punk concept album by Green Day (with a couple of songs from a later album, 21st Century Breakdown, blended into the score). On dozens of TV screens hung like garishly lit windows all over the back wall of the opera house, images of a sneering George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and the hooded prisoners of Abu Ghraib alternate with fast-flashing footage of Britney Spears, Fox News, 7-Eleven logos and American flags. (The witty flow of video is the work of designer Darrel Maloney.)
All the mind-numbing shit pumped out by media night and day is remixed into high-sheen Shinola by this show, which was directed by Michael Mayer (who co-wrote the book with Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong) and choreographed by Steven Hoggett (a current Tony nominee for the musical Once). Green Day may have been pop-punk, but this musical, fun though it is to experience, is pure big-budget product. Don't expect punk rock's jagged-edged anarchy. Every dance move, every thrash of every head in the show is done in well-rehearsed unison by performers with shiny locks and insanely infomercial-perfect abs.
Like the Broadway tour of Hair that visited the Winspear last year, American Idiot, set in "the recent past," depicts ersatz rebellion by a set of gorgeous post-adolescent characters meant to represent the pimply apathetic youth of their era. The three boys — Johnny, Will and Tunny — who leap out at us at the top of Idiot in a 20-minute torrent of hot, shrieking rock, are fed up with what the song titles tell us are "The Jesus of Suburbia" and "Tales of Another Broken Home."
Off they gyrate into what they hope will be a thrilling world of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Who'll survive and who'll end up wasting the best years of his life? What little snatches of story there are between songs come from Johnny (Van Hughes), reading diary excerpts embellished with bravado. He's our anti-hero, but a sweet one. All snark and no bite.
"I held up my local convenience store to get a bus ticket," Johnny says with a smirk, heading out of suburbia with his pal Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) and their guitars.
"Actually, I stole the money from my mom's dresser."
"Actually, she lent me the cash."
The third friend, Will (Jake Epstein), misses the bus and the big city adventure. His girlfriend is pregnant.
Out of the 'burbs at last, Johnny roams that "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" till he meets a sexy girl (Gabrielle McClinton). He also befriends a ghostly pale drug lord, St. Jimmy (Joshua Kobak), and falls briefly in love with heroin, shared with the girlfriend in their squalid bedroom. Meanwhile, Tunny, numbed by endless TV-watching, is stirred by the flag-waving propaganda beamed out during the early days of the Iraq war (played out to the song "Favorite Son"). Tunny enlists and ends up with his leg blown off in combat. In an Army hospital he performs a tumbling mid-air dream-waltz (on wires) with a beautiful Army nurse (Nicci Claspell) to the song "Extraordinary Girl." (For my money, the high point of the whole shebang.)
For a rock opera/musical, American Idiot borrows its politics and vignette-song-vignette style from Hair, its use of spasmodic dance moves from Spring Awakening and its archetypal characters from Rent. The music is great. The performances are terrific. And any opportunity to remind big-ticket audiences that tax dollars and human lives were wasted on a trumped-up war is a worthwhile too. So why does the show's encore, the now-ubiquitous "Time of Your Life," make us a little sad that it hasn't been anything like that? Making punk palatable to the masses misses the point, right?
Good golly, what would Ms. Molly Ivins have made of Sarah Palin, Michele and Marcus Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Mitt "Dog on the Roof" Romney? You can see Texas' finest skeweress of politicians again and hear many of her best lines performed by actress Georgia Clinton, starring in the solo show Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins at Fort Worth's Stage West.
"If the truth be known ... wouldn't that be a novelty?" muses Molly in the 70-minute review of her life and career (directed by Dana Schultes, the script is by twin writers Margaret and Allison Engel). The show goes from Molly's childhood through debutante years ("I was a St. Bernard among greyhounds," Molly says of her society debut), Smith College and her first journalism job at the Houston Chronicle, where she keeps "being sent to four-alarm fires to interview the flames."