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American Idiot the musical fails to give Green Day’s anthems narrative arc 

Wednesday, Sep 23 2009
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Five years ago, Green Day released a record many pop-punk fans felt was a middle finger to the status quo. American Idiot was taken as a grand, rock-operatic statement against various miseries — Bush in the White House, war in the Middle East, and general suburban malaise among them. Sure, there were smaller bands that asserted an edgier, more aggressive dissatisfaction with life. But Green Day gave rebellion an upbeat, anthemic polish at a time when this country felt like a pressure cooker, rocketing the Berkeley trio further into massive superstardom and earning them two Grammy Awards. The public was pissed off, and the band handed it a bombastic soundtrack through which to vent its agitation. Twelve million copies of the record flew off shelves around the world.

Tony Award–winning director Michael Mayer has reformatted Green Day's infectious magnum opus as a musical, attempting to unleash anew the feeling of being young, restless, and trapped by post–9/11 constructs that are out of your control. But instead of using 85 minutes of stage time to delve deeper into American Idiot's radio-friendly pop grenades, the play suffers from an existential confusion as muddled as the emotional lives of its lead characters.

The first third of the musical is little more than a (very) fun, flashy Video Music Awards–style montage of singing and dancing. By the time the story finally builds, the characters are pat simplifications of slackerdom, their narrative arcs stunted into predictable after-school-special messages about the dangers of drinking beer, getting high, and waging war.

The staged American Idiot revolves around characters Mayer teased out of the album: Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy, and Whatsername. Here, Jesus is Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.), an emo rocker given to monologues about how much he resents both his stepdad and showering. He falls into lust with Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and the heroin and crack pushed by St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent) the dealer. While Johnny confronts comfortable middle-class suburbia — pissed off that he's no criminal, getting money from mom whenever he asks, life sucks — his buddies Will (Michael Esper) and Tunny (Matt Caplan) embark on their own bouts of self-destruction. Will knocks up his girlfriend, Heather (Mary Farber), and spends the rest of the play blubbering on the couch, while Tunny joins the military, gets injured, and hooks up with some sort of Middle Eastern nurse/angel named the Extraordinary Girl (Christina Sajous). There's little suspense about how these three scenarios will turn out. Drugs and war: bad. Being too bummed out to get your ass off the couch for your newborn: bad. Unfortunately there's little that's thought-provoking — or, at the very least for a rock 'n' roll musical, campy or offbeat — about the mess these buddies get themselves into.

American Idiot's program notes suggest the production toys with issues of "redemption," but its own redemption resides outside its storyline. The set design, costumes, and especially the choreography are expressive and evocative in ways the plot isn't. From the opening scene, you're immediately thrust into the physicality of being a pent-up mall punk. Johnny, Will, and Tunny are surrounded by an ensemble cast who cannot stand still: Its members are drinking and shoving and dancing and climbing and stage-diving and sweating and red-faced and wild-eyed. They're moving at the clip of an MTV video through the songs "American Idiot," "Jesus of Suburbia," "City of the Damned," and "I Don't Care" so forcefully that the actors are flushed. The anthems come to life, clenched fists and all.

For all the lulls in the storyline, the action onstage never rests, thanks to the 21 Green Day songs woven into the performance. With the exception of a cheeseball sign language/modern dance bit, most of the choreography is lively and intense. My favorite number, "Favorite Son," moves a half-naked military icon (Joshua Henry) from his undies into full uniform before you even realize why he's being transformed. The set is equally inspired: The kids are dwarfed and cornered within skyscraper-high propaganda, from the punk-rock-flyer wallpaper to multiple televisions embedded in the walls and a Cadillac front hanging from the ceiling.

A live band performs all the songs from the stage, acting as background to the cast — who, for the most part, did a decent job bringing to life the tunes off American Idiot and several songs from the new 21st Century Breakdown. Johnny, Will, and Tunny would make fine indie-rock singers, but the supporting cast members possess the powerhouse pipes. St. Jimmy is an intoxicating glam-rock devil, and the females belt out their songs with more confidence than their male counterparts. Musically, even the cornball ballads (and there are a few) translate well to the stage, although I really wanted this rock opera to crank up the volume and overtake the room.

To give Mayer some credit, perhaps Green Day is partly responsible for the play's thin plotline. Remove all the gangbusters instrumentation and production from the American Idiot CD ,and you have characters easily packaged in three-to-nine-minute moments. They're not Pulitzer-quality fantasies of fierce modern rebels; Jesus of Suburbia, St. Jimmy, and Whatsername are bubblegum archetypes for an Urban Outfitters generation. They're what you want to listen to when you're kinda angsty, but too full of optimism to really punch a fist into the wall.

American Idiot the musical is a safe vision of a rock opera. It lacks a provocative thrust to its tale, but makes up for dull dialogue with impressive production — making the play an antidote to one of the biggest threats American adolescents face: boredom.

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Jennifer Maerz

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