‘American Idiot’: Too much love in the rage

Gabrielle McClinton (center) and the women of ‘American Idiot’ bust out ‘Letterbomb.’ (photos: Doug Hamilton)

TVs tuned in to the defining moments of pop culture, glitter-bombing, prosthetic legs, and flying in mid-air as a dream sequence for one song: Those are all the common spectacles you’ll get out of American Idiot. But American Idiot isn’t your typical musical after all. Though it’s been said to be Hair for a new generation and its boisterous nature and celebration of misfits is a bit reminiscent of Rent, there is something more exciting about Idiot. Maybe it’s just the fact that it uses all Green Day songs to speak for itself. American Idiot brings to life the critically-acclaimed 2004 concept album by the band and the characters of the rock opera: the Jesus of Suburbia (Known as Johnny for the stage production), St. Jimmy, The Extraordinary Girl, and Whatsername (Important to note too that front man Billie Joe Armstrong penned the book with Michael Mayer, so this is no cheapie unauthorized knock-off). Toss in some B-sides and songs from the follow-up album 21st Century Breakdown, and you’ve got a glorified rock concert. Except, this is at least one rock concert that speaks volumes beyond its loud music—it’s a true testament to society, people’s lives, and the brilliance of Green Day. You don’t even have to be a fan to begin with to enjoy it—you simply just have to have an appreciation for some bold theater.

Like the band who birthed its music, American Idiot‘s roots are in Berkeley, having debuted at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre before its Broadway run from April 2010 to April 2011. The first national tour, which kicked off in Toronto in December 2011, wrapped up days after the Fourth of July at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco for an electrifying Homecoming. The show opens with those TVs full of news clips and pop culture insanity and the group of kids that have become numb to those images. Welcome to Jingletown, America, where the little odyssey starts off. We meet our three rebellious lazy bum protagonists: the main guy Johnny (Van Hughes), Tunny (Scott J. Campbell), and Will (Jake Epstein). They attempt to embark on an escape from boring suburbia to the lights of the city, but become bitterly separated on their own misadventures. Will doesn’t even make the trip, when he finds out his girlfriend Heather (Leslie McDonel) is pregnant, but he ends up falling into a depression and becomes distant from her. Tunny enlists in the Army, is shipped off to war, and gets terribly injured. Johnny finds love with Whatsername (Gabrielle McClinton), but also discovers St. Jimmy (Joshua Kobak), initially seen to be a flashy and powerful drug dealer, later revealed to be Johnny’s evil self.

The little words spoken in between are told in the forms of letters to each other and the characters’ parents, but most of the time, each song  goes on to the next one without a break, which makes it an all the more impressive feat for the cast with their strenuous choreography. The industrial set design is versatile and gritty—particularly notable for the use of TV monitors, which was used for everything from the media saturation in the opening and food shelves to give the illusion of a 7-Eleven, to a background for a combat scene. The most challenging technical aspect appeared to be getting two of the characters to levitate and frolick in mid-air, in the scene where the Extraordinary Girl (Nicci Claspell) appears in Tunny’s dreams to the tune bearing that character’s name. It was certainly the most out-there number for a show that is otherwise ordinary (i.e. without a lot of stunts), but it also meant that it was one of the most exciting ones—and the sexiest too, because the Extraordinary Girl really lives up to her name.

But perhaps American Idiot‘s biggest accomplishment is how the cast and the on-stage band are able to make Green Day songs sound like Broadway songs, without losing the essence of its rockability and their emotional cores. In fact, they bring that emotion to a whole new level. Songs like “21 Guns,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” and the finale “Whatsername” are moving to begin with. However, in the context of a musical—in the contexts of depression, drug addiction, war trauma, lost love, and loneliness—those songs touch even deeper. The touring cast is excellent not just in their singing, but in feeling the music and the moments their characters are experiencing in the story. Everyone really brings their own voice and personality into each song and makes them their own, and not just a cover of a Green Day song. The musical director and band also deserve recognition for the outstanding arrangements. Who knew “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” could deliver such a chill up the spine with the ensemble, the additional female voice (McClinton’s, in this case) and more singing to fill in the last 30 seconds?

American Idiot is a little bit limited by its 90-minute, no intermission running time. Character development is somewhat short, particularly with Will. Slightly a little more problematic is how it presents itself as taking place in the post 9/11-world—even with the politically-charged theme of American Idiot the original record, the storylines fall into more generalities about being, living, going against the grain, and finding peace and happiness. It’s actually a little less political than one might expect, but it still has lots of spirit, and brings to light some realities about life through music. In its own way, it’s serious and very meaningful, just not in the way it claims it is sometimes. In any way, American Idiot is riotous, fun, and uplifting, but the bittersweet path it heads towards through the end leaves the deepest footprints on you. After the curtain falls down, it opens back up to reveal the cast with their guitars, to close down with an acoustic rendition of “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” That chorus sums it all up perfectly for those who have seen it: “It’s something unpredictable, but in the end, it’s right. I hope you had the time of your life.”

Yup. I sure did. Thank you, Green Day and touring cast.

And you still might have the chance to have the time of your life too when ‘American Idiot’ embarks on its second national [non-Equity] tour later this year, with an all-new cast. Keep checking Americanidiotthemusical.com for new tour dates!

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