The older folks who bailed while the show was going strong would disagree, but American Idiot is an accomplished, moving piece of 21st century theater.
More in the style of shows like Rent, Spring Awakening, The Who’s Tommy or Chess, the show that will be raging and rocking at Broward Center for the Performing Arts through April 6 is even more opera-like in its use of lyrics to convey its loose story and, more pointedly, its characters’ surging emotions. American Idiot is about as far from South Pacific or Oklahoma! as Broadway theater gets; hence, those scattered walkouts.
Crafted from the punk-pop band Green Day’s concept CD, with a few additions from 21 Guns, American Idiot tells the stories of three aimless suburban friends whose restless boredom makes them hatch a plan to head for the excitement of the big city. Pals Johnny (Jared Nepute) and Tunny (Dan Tracy) make it out of the ‘burbs. Their friend Will (Casey O’Farrell) nearly does, but when his girlfriend Heather (Mariah MacFarlane) lets him know she’s pregnant with his baby, he stays.
Soon, the guys find that change doesn’t equal happily ever after.
Inspired by a TV soldier (Michael Pilato) surrounded by hotties in sparkly red, white and silver dresses, Tunny enlists and is sent off to war. Lonely Johnny embraces his partying, drug-pushing alter ego St. Jimmy (Carson Higgins) and gets involved with a beautiful woman he calls Whatsername (Olivia Puckett), pulling her into his downward spiral. Will stays planted on his couch, smoking, drinking and feeling stuck.
Each young man’s journey leads him home, but at great cost. For Johnny, the loss is love; for Tunny, it’s physical wholeness; for Will, it’s family. The characters’ angry angst may resonate most powerfully with younger audience members, but such losses are familiar to us all.
The way that American Idiot has been brought to life is in keeping with Green Day’s music, edgy and insightful and of the moment. Director Michael Mayer, who co-authored the script with Green Day vocalist-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, keeps much of the 90-minute, intermission-free show flowing as frenetically as some of the more blistering music, though there are moments of lovely stillness, as when Nepute’s Johnny strums a guitar and sings When It’s Time.
Choreographer Steven Hoggett embraces that frenetic, even frantic vibe to create several group “dances” that feel like head-banging in lockstep. But he also achieves a kind of hallucinatory sensuality in the hospital-set Extraordinary Girl, and an awful yet arresting pas de deux as Johnny and Whatsername become entwined in a heroin addict’s rubber hose.
Christine Jones’ set, Kevin Adams’ lighting design and Darrel Maloney’s video-projection design combine to suggest a world of constant sensory bombardment — our world, in other words.
Under music director Evan Jay Newman, the show’s five musicians, tucked upstage on either side of the action, deliver orchestrator Tom Kitt’s arrangements with the kind of range the score demands. They’re explosive on numbers like American Idiot and Letterbomb, richly layered on such songs as Boulevard of Broken Dreams and 21 Guns.
The young cast is, from the outset, a powerful ensemble. A few actors push a little too hard, trying to sketch character through lyrics during fleeting moments in the spotlight. But leads Nepute, O’Farrell and Tracy are terrific singer-actor-musicians, with all those talents showcased as they sing the haunting Wake Me Up When September Ends.