Return of the Prodigal Idiot

The Broadway musical based on the album of the same name by East Bay punk band Green Day, American Idiot has walked a lonely road since it premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2009. It headed off to a smash Broadway run that saw Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong join the cast, and it picked up a couple of Tony Awards for set and lighting design. Now with a feature film adaptation in the works, American Idiot comes home to the Bay Area on its post-Broadway tour sounding a little different after a few rounds of rewrites, landing at the Orpheum Theatre courtesy of SHN.

Leslie McDonel, Gabrielle McClinton, Krystina Alabado, Talia Aaron, Nicci Claspell and Jillian Mueller in American Idiot. Photo by Doug Hamilton.

There isn’t really a story implicit in the 2004 album by East Bay punk band Green Day that gives the musical its name and almost all of its songs (a few are from the 2009 follow-up record, 21st Century Breakdown). There are a lot of references to a disillusioned and dissolute “Jesus of Suburbia” and competing rebel/martyr icons, “St. Jimmy” and “Whatsername.” More than anything, what the record embodies is the rumbling dissatisfaction of the Bush years—or, if you’re a teenage punk, the rumbling dissatisfaction of growing up, period. But even if it isn’t particularly coherent as a concept album, what that record has is some fantastically catchy songs, which gives the stage version one huge advantage from the outset.  The musical is cowritten (with Armstrong) and directed by Michael Mayer, the Tony-winning director of the ubiquitous fellow troubled-teen rock musical Spring Awakening (which has had recent local productions at San Jose Rep, Center REP, and now the humble Altarena Playhouse).

The script is minimal. There’s no dialogue, just a few postcards full of inane quasi-profundities recited by our antihero Johnny between songs. The story, such as it is, is acted out in pantomime during songs whose lyrics are thematically relevant if not to be taken literally. Johnny enjoys drinking, smoking, roughhousing, teen angst, and jumping up and down on the couch with his friends Will and Tunny, but soon they all go their separate ways. Sick of his one-horse town, Johnny hops a bus to L.A., where he finds a girlfriend and gets strung out on drugs. “I held up my local convenience store to get the bus tickets,” Johnny says in the show’s funniest passage. “Actually, I stole the money from my mother’s dresser. Actually, she lent me the money. Fucking bitch.” Will finds out his girlfriend is pregnant, so he’s stuck at home looking after her. Tunny somehow winds up joining the Army and gets wounded in battle. And wherever they go and whatever they do, their gnawing discontent goes with them.

None of the original Berkeley cast  is in the touring show, although it features Broadway understudy/replacement Van Hughes as Johnny, Broadway swing Joshua Kobak as St. Jimmy, and Broadway ensemble member Leslie McDonel as Will’s girlfriend Heather. Christine Jones’ Tony-winning set has been much pared down since Berkeley and Broadway. The tall walls are no longer plastered with punk posters, and most notably there’s no car suspended above the stage. The very sparse graffiti on the black walls loses some of the punk-club atmosphere of the original, but there are still television screens hung all up and down the back wall, blaring news shows, and a series of stairs and catwalks to play on. Kevin Adams’s lights flash brightly at the audience with regularity, or flood the stage in green for a grim battle dance sequence.

Arranged by Tom Kitt and directed by keyboarding Jared Stein, the songs sound terrific, played by an onstage band sticking to the shadows in the corners of the stage. The ensemble often falls into dancing doubled over as if they had stomach cramps, a move that was also a fixture in the choreography of Mayer’s original production of Spring Awakening. Troubled youth, Mayer tells us, can’t help dancing as if they have appendicitis. Despite that oddity, which was certainly present when I first saw the show three years ago, Steven Hoggett’s choreography is brisk and energetic, even if it doesn’t exactly cry out “punk” to me after attending a zillion shows at Gilman back in the day. (I was never punk myself, but certainly a fellow traveler.) Some of the choreography is, oddly enough, not all that different from the last show I saw at the Orpheum, the cheerleader musical Bring It On.

The show feels crisper and smoother than when it played Berkeley, and the story’s a little more comprehensible (insofar as there is one), but it’s also lost some of the raw, raucous edge that it had when it first premiered. It almost seems too sharp and too professional, pure Broadway glamour in grubby punk drag, and feels a little warmed over as a result.

Van Hughes is a fun and energetic Johnny. The sardonic drawl he uses for the spoken bits is amusing if a tad overdone, and he’s a strong singer, nicely accompanying himself on acoustic guitar for the songs that are all tender and contemplative and shit. Jake Epstein’s voice is startlingly dulcet as the boisterous Will, chafing at his newfound domesticity. Scott J. Campbell’s motivations are a mystery as the cipher Tunny, who joins the Army after a hot guy in underwear (Jarran Muse) sings a song on TV, but his soulful presence leaves you content not to pry. Joshua Kobak’s sneering voice is jarringly nasal as the satanically charismatic drug dealer St. Jimmy, but he does some lovely singing on “Last Night on Earth,” a duet with Heather, a character he never meets.

The women are more problematic in this production. Gabrielle McClinton has a strong presence as Whatsername, the woman that Johnny has an intense love affair with in the city, but her singing is very uneven. Nicci Claspell does a lovely aerial dance—in an I Dream of Jeannie getup, no less—as Tunny’s desert angel of mercy, the Extraordinary Girl, but her harmonies with Campbell clash more than they harmonize.  Leslie McDonel is the sweetest singer of the ladies in the smallest part—Heather, the pregnant girl—and Talia Aaron is awfully pitchy as her nameless friend in the ’50s –style number “Too Much Too Soon,” which sounds like a punked-up outtake from Grease.

There are some marvelously effective stage pictures here and there in Mayer’s staging: The slowly marching troops in underwear that form behind Tunney. The mix of people in punk garb and office wear who go from lying prone on the ground to flailing as if falling during “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” The upturned scaffolding used as a bus with happy punkers hanging off the sides in “Holiday.” The aerial dance is striking too, unfortunate orientalism aside. The show is 100 minutes without intermission and keeps the energy strong throughout, even if there are a few fake-out endings before the actual close of the show. (And that’s not even counting the entertaining encore.)

The important thing is that the songs are terrific. “Holiday,” Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Are We the Waiting,” —one after another after another, they’re propulsive, thunderous, and super catchy. The music’s way better than most rock musicals right out of the gate, and Kitt’s arrangements keep them brawny and simple without adding a swelling string section or something. That said, the only song that’s been added since the show was here last—“Last of the American Girls”—muddies up the manic pop-punk ditty “She’s a Rebel” by making it a medley with some precious baroque chamber pop. The narrative may be so pointless that pointlessness may in fact be the point, but in sheer rockitude at least, American Idiot puts the poseur preening of something like Rock of Ages to shame.

American Idiot
Through July 8
Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #56 of 2012, attended June 13.

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