The rock opera has its roots in The Who’s Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair and the Rocky Horror Picture Show. American Idiot opens few new doors. It barely builds on the shoulders of those prior giants.
The set opens with walls of TV monitors flashing rapid fire TV clips of culture junk (recalling U2’s ZooTV Tour set). In a flash and a slash of guitars, the energetic cast is soon leaping in well-choreographed motion. The incredibly limber gymnastics of the cast are evident.
But before the halfway mark of the show, my mind wanders. And by the end I am still wondering: How do all the various elements in each successive 3-5 minute chunk of the play work so well independently, yet taken together result in such a disjointed 94 minute whole?
The set (by Christine Jones) is evocative and versatile. The band (led by music director Jared Stein) is tight, with suitably low slung thrashing guitars, although deploying second rate Clash chords. Indeed, much of the creative team worked together on the more thoughtful Spring Awakening: Michael Mayer (director), Kevin Adams (lighting designer), Andrea Lauer (costume designer), Brian Ronan (sound design) and Jones.
The American Idiot storyline is nothing unique, whether we have seen it before in A Clockwork Orange or in myriad other settings. Burgess’ novel and Kubrick’s film presented the same full cycle of antiestablishment nihilism transforming the lead character to the point of recognizing that maybe home and family and community is not so bad after all.
Green Day, led by Billie Joe Armstrong, wrote and recorded the American Idiot album in 2004. The songs were glued together to build a story around the Jesus of Suburbia character. Critics liked it, and fans lapped it up, sending the album to number one in 19 countries with a Grammy for Best Album along the way. Armstrong workshopped a stage version in Berkeley, where its success led to a Broadway run. Armstrong occasionally took the stage to play the role of St Jimmy, the drug dealing alter ego of the drug addicted Johnny. Johnny is at the center of the overly familiar story of three buddies who are going to split their Podunk town for the big city. Will is hobbled by unexpected early fatherhood, Tunny is drawn to the military and our hero cycles through drug addiction. The most clever line of the evening is “I’ve got an axe to grind and it’s splitting my head.”
The aural onslaught is leavened by the occasional acoustic number. For instance, “Wake Me Up When September Ends” is lovely. The song title most appropriate, perhaps unintentionally, is “Too Much Too Soon.” The set has a clever back alley sensibility, somewhat reminiscent of West Side Story. Van Hughes plays Johnny with aplomb, drawing on his prior experience with the role elsewhere.
The LA opening night crowd offered the seemingly perfunctory standing ovation. In attendance a few rows away was Tom Hanks, who will be producing the film version. For the curtain call, the stage is cleared and the full cast is lined up with acoustic guitars. They run through Green Day’s prior big hit, “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” which was well received, yet rather obligatory and expected. Heck, even Glen Campbell recorded a version on his current album.