Brian Jacobson

“American Idiot” rocks, but with shallow roles

The touring Broadway rock opera is all punk and bombast, but leaves story depth and complexity off stage right.

By - Apr 13th, 2013 02:58 pm

Thomas Hettrick (Tunny), Alex Nee (Johnny) and Casey O’Farrell (Will) in AMERICAN IDIOT [photo: John Daughtry]

Thomas Hettrick (Tunny), Alex Nee (Johnny) and Casey O’Farrell (Will) in American Idiot. Photo by John Daughtry.

The Broadway musical adaptation of Green Day’s 2004 album American Idiot is breathless and fist-pumping. You have to at least give them credit for that.

Billie Joe Armstrong conceived the original album as a rock opera comparable to those made by The Who, and so his path to a stage adaptation is natural. Certain songs on their own – “21 Guns,” or “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” for example – are a good fit for a Broadway musical. But if you went and saw the recent movie adaptation of Les Miserables and thought “Boy, it sure would be nice if they stopped singing once in a while and talked to each other,” then this show will not be for you.

The hints of a plot in American Idiot: the Musical are threadbare, completed mostly by pantomime actions during the showcase numbers. The only spoken parts are brief, spoken postcard messages written by the main character.  It would almost help if you read the detailed plot summary on Wikipedia, which explained a lot for me afterwards. If not, then theatergoers will receive as much character depth here as they would reading a four-panel newspaper comic strip.

In the story, three friends named Johnny, Will and Tunny (perhaps representing Green Day bandmates Billie Joe, Mike and Tre) tire of drinking beer bought from their small town convenience store and the inanity of television, so they prepare to take off for the city. Before they can, Will finds out his girlfriend is pregnant and stays behind. Once in the big city, a bored Tunny is enraptured by an advertisement for the Army. Thinking he has found purpose, he signs up and is apparently sent to Iraq or Afghanistan.  Johnny seeks love instead, and finds it, but he also finds a wild new friend, St. Jimmy, who gets him hooked on heroin.


Alex Nee (Johnny) and Trent Saunders (St. Jimmy). Photo by John Daughtry.

The plot moves forward like you think it will. Will grows bitter over being left behind and withholds affection from his pregnant girlfriend. Tunny gets his leg blown off. Johnny gets the new girlfriend hooked and ends up choosing the drugs over her. And by the third act, all the characters are seeking redemption and acceptance.

There is still a lot to like about the show.  The music is spot-on to the original, with the band sequestered in different corners of a flexible-yet-static stage similar to the set-up in Spring Awakening — which shares the same original director in Michael Mayer.  When Alex Nee (Johnny) sings “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” or “Holiday”, it’s a pretty fair match to Billie Joe Armstrong.  When the muscular Jared Young sings “Favorite Son”, it’s like a inventive cover sung on TV’s The Voice. When the ensemble sings a number like “Nobody Likes You”, it’s a punk-themed episode of Glee.

Alex Nee (Johnny) in AMERICAN IDIOT [photo: John Daughtry]

Alex Nee (Johnny) in AMERICAN IDIOT [photo: John Daughtry]

These last two examples may sound like backhanded compliments, but a modern-day rock musical has to give as much glitz and excitement as cinematic or televised versions. The staging is frenetic and filled with dazzling lighting and visual stimulation. Cast members don’t as much sing up and out to the heavens as they do belt it out into the audience with an almost-accusatory tone.

Thematically speaking, the only problem with Idiot as a rock opera musical is that staging a story around disaffected and numb youth of the post-9/11 generation doesn’t say much.  This period in American culture is portrayed here as being angry at everything for no reason, in which the participants make bad decisions even when they know it’s wrong.  The original punk lyrics always seemed to be more about outrage towards authority and media, using the more intriguing character concepts of ‘Jesus of Suburbia’, ‘St. Jimmy’ and love interest ‘Whatsername’. Focusing more directly on that story would have made a deeper stage presence.

In the end, if you need a night of bombastic rock and roll, modern dance fused with mosh pit motion and comfortable seats, then this will be the show for you.  If you seek a true Broadway musical with depth, wait until Rent gets another revival.

American Idiot will run once more at the Milwaukee Theatre this weekend, at 8 p.m. Saturday (tonight). Tickets are $75, $63, $48, $33. For details, call the box office, (800) 745-3000 or visit the theater’s website.

Categories: Music, Rock, Theater

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