Rock-and-roll music was a monstrously renegade force back in the 1950s, driving parents of teenagers to their martini shakers and ministers to their pulpits to proclaim the end of morality and civilization. Ever since then, young people, righteously pissed off at the conventions and hypocrisy of society, have been trying to re-create that rage through music such as punk rock. But the game has changed, because once corporations figured out that they could use edgy music groups as a marketing tool, societal anger was replaced with lucrative contracts. And as soon as any group's weird music got popular, it was likely to be co-opted by mainstream America.
This irony, along with the anger and disconnection of punk-rock performers, is being addressed with mixed results in Loud Americans: A Punk Saga, now at Dobama's Night Kitchen. What works in this show is a kick-ass band that plays snatches of original punk compositions during breaks. What flops is the book for this quasi-musical, a pastiche of meandering scenes that fails to mold any of the four characters into a believable or interesting person.
Set in Cleveland, the story unfolds as three male members of the band the Mutilators bring on female guitarist Holly (Christa Heidrick), who has connections to the punk scene and wants the band to make a name for itself. But the trio of slackers she hooks up with has a shitload of problems -- ranging from the inability of drummer Toby (Jeff Marsey) to play his instrument, the drug addiction of alpha-male lead-singer Devon (Duane Rutter), and the rootlessness of addled bass-guitarist Jimmy (Brian Douglas).
There's plenty of grist here for some dramatic friction, but the script, by director Christopher Johnston and Gregory Vovos, spends too much time mucking about in the petty squabbles and shifting alliances among the band members, but not enough dramatically engaging the larger question: How can creatively inspired rage and alienation be sustained in a commercial environment? Devon spouts a couple of woozy mini-lectures on the subject, but once the play gets sidetracked into drug abuse, the surprises are over, and the show lapses into a formulaic exercise.
It's too bad the structure is so shaky, because the shadow band that plays the music is great. One only wishes that Steve Johnston, Sid Krusen, Jen Paulsen, and Bob Yeager could play longer and actually finish a song. These musical interludes haven't been worked into the script, as in a conventional musical, so the action slams to a halt after every scene. While the actors individually display fleeting promise, director Johnston needs to tighten the cues and explore some less predictable characterizations.
That said, Dobama's Night Kitchen succeeds by giving a new work needed exposure in front of an audience that also benefits by receiving a free soundtrack CD with the ticket price -- featuring the wonderfully titled "Who Died and Made You My Boyfriend?" You could do a lot worse for seven bucks, and the co-authors could do a lot better. Here's hoping they will.