I’m not sure how you review Americana In Concert as it’s exactly that – a concert version of a musical called Americana. This is very much a work in progress with most of the cast not, as they say in the theatre, “off-book” and having to refer to their scripts which they carried on stage in big black folders, which was a bit of a distraction. There was a fairly simple set featuring four large flower-covered crosses, with the cast at the front using hand-held mics and the six piece band at the back behind a white picket fence. But although there were projections at the back of creeks and roads to set the scene, in reality this was just a grander version of a workshop performance.
Americana is the product of the creative collective Hungry Bitches Productions. It started out as a production for the 2014 Edinburgh Festival and was then workshopped with Theatre Royal Stratford East. The music is loud and brash and has it’s roots firmly in the grunge/rock genre of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana although there are a number of country-ish ballads and rock anthems. They also throw in a little hip-hop which really doesn’t work within the context of the rest of the music. The collective’s manifesto states “We shake up the genre in new and exciting ways, which free it from the shackles of convention and what musicals are expected to be”. I have to disagree with them here as Americana is basically a conventional musical i.e. with a narrative book interspersed with songs.
The use of rock music in a musical goes all the way back to 1967 and Hair so there’s nothing new or radical in Americana. The musical it owes most to is “American Idiot” which features songs by Green Day, an American punk band whose musical style isn’t light years away from Nirvana’s.
American Idiot was a surprise hit on Broadway and its story of teenage angst in American society has echoes in Americana albeit in a different setting The show is set in a small, repressed god-loving Baptist town somewhere in the deep south of America. It tells the story of a group of white high school kids as they deal with their sexuality and teenage angst. It opens with the funeral of “Brody” which is overseen by “The Man” and we then move back in time to discover how “Brody” met his untimely end. Along the way we meet some stock characters such as “Milky” the football “jock”, “David” the gay outcast, “Jackson” the class valedictorian and “Peaches” the punk misfit. It’s the story of how they survive (or in the case of “Brody”, don’t survive) in a town that wants all the kids to be god fearing, heterosexual and fit into the same regimented mould.
There’s some excellent singing in Americana especially from the likes of Sienna Sebek, Ailsa Davidson and Kymberley Cochrane but the combination of hand-held mics and the reading from scripts makes it impossible to judge their acting skills.
There’s a germ of an idea in the show but as this was a concert version, it’s impossible to judge it as a staged musical. There seemed to be a number of holes in the plot and I’m not sure what the character of “The Man” added to the scenario. On the whole the songs were good rather than great and in one case, very current as it was about Donald Trump! But the book needs a lot of work and as it was quite episodic, I’ll be interested in seeing how they’ll stage it – if it gets that far. I have great admiration for what Hungry Bitches Productions are doing, and new talent and new musicals such as this should be encouraged but American Idiot ran for over 400 performances on Broadway and when it came over here it only had a short run at the 350 seater off-West End Arts Theatre before going on tour – and that had the songs of Green Day going for it, so I fear for its future.
I wish everyone involved in Americana the best of luck in its endeavours and I look forward to a full production so I’ll know how to review it!
Review by Alan Fitter
Americana in Concert
Thursday 31st March – Saturday 2nd April 2016
Premiere of the groundbreaking new musical by young up and coming theatre makers Hungry Bitches productions