By John Quinn, EncoreMichigan
Music is one of the great dividers of generations. The young use it a weapon in their revolution against the old order. I don’t understand the angst of punk; my knee jerk response is, “Lose the nose ring, comb your hair and get a job!” It should come as no surprise, then, that “American Idiot” is the most prestigious musical I never heard of. By cracky, what have I been missing?
Green Day won two Grammys for their 2004 multi-platinum album “American Idiot,” a thematic cycle written with an eye toward dramatic presentation. Their first thought was film, but Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening”) heard the album and suggested the stage instead.
Thus “American Idiot,” with lyrics by Green Day’s lead man Billie Joe Armstrong and book by Armstrong and Mayer, opened in September 2009 at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in California. It moved to Broadway’s St. James Theatre in March 2010. Nominated for Best Musical, it won Tony Awards for Best Lighting Design of a Musical and Best Scenic Design of a Musical. It plays at the Detroit Opera House until January 22.
“American Idiot” is aggressive. The size and volume of images are difficult to process; it’s best to just sit back and let it wash over you. This is especially true since you’re going to have trouble figuring out the plot. It’s punk rock opera; the narrative unfolds through songs that are difficult to interpret. Solos and duets are crystal clear, but the amplification can’t handle choruses well. This is not to discredit the sound engineers of this show; it’s a problem with every musical.
So here’s a brief recap. Johnny (Van Hughes), Will (Jake Epstein) and Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) are disenchanted, disenfranchised young citizens of Jingletown, USA. The trio wants to chuck stifling small-town life for The Big City. Fate and an overactive libido doom Will’s plans; his girlfriend, Heather (Leslie McDonel), reveals she’s pregnant. Will stays home. Tunny accompanies Johnny to the city, but doesn’t find the excitement he craves. He enlists in the military and is sent to the Middle East.
Frustrated by his friend’s departure and his inability to find girls or fun, Johnny finds companionship in a manic drug dealer named St. James (Joshua Kobak). Spoiler alert! St. James is only a figment of Johnny’s tortured id. “They” begin a downward spiral of drug abuse and meaningless sex with “Whatshername” (Gabrielle McClinton). If you need a one sentence summation of “American Idiot’s” theme, it’s “Where ever you go, there you are.”
The music of Green Day is worthy of musical theater production. It may be combative and at times vulgar, but it demonstrates the emotional power implicit in clean, unadorned melodies. Musical Director Jared Stein and the band deftly handle the score, moving from wild and raucous to soft and pensive with style. While each of the principals gest a star turn, what stays in one’s memory are achingly beautiful ballads, featuring the outstanding voices of Van Hughes, Leslie McDonal and Gabrielle McClinton.
There are some weak spots. As the musical was first created as an album, the book and lyrics are notably short on character development. That doesn’t help when trying to interpret the plot. The choreography is a little rough and ragged – more mosh pit that Broadway.
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is faint praise. The scenic design (Christine Jones), costumes (Andea Lauer), lighting (Kevin Adams) and projections (Darrel Malony) are individually stunning; together they are absolutely dazzling. Not to be dismissive of other productions, but nothing here says “touring show.” The collaboration among actors, musicians and designers produces an unforgettable whole in “Last Night on Earth.” Both attractive and repellant at the same time, the number is utterly captivating.
“American Idiot” can be viewed as the catharsis of a disillusioned generation. That their malaise makes for such compelling theater can make one feel guilty. I’d like to extend a comforting “It gets better,” but who listens to old fogies these days?
For tickets and showtimes, visit EncoreMichigan.com.
John Quinn reviews local theater productions for www.EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. Follow them on Facebook @EncoreMichigan.com.