Don’t wanna be an American idiot. Don’t want a nation that doesn’t know media. And can you hear the sound of hysteria? The subliminal mind fuck America.
— The Company
I was only vaguely familiar with the rock group Green Day and its concept album “American Idiot” when it was announced as a Broadway production. As good fortune would have it, our son was visiting during spring break. When I told him that I was not only going to see it but also going to review it, he said, “I’ll leave you the CD, which I just happen to have in the car.” Crash course ahead: A relative outsider to the genre I am not only impressed by this rock opera’s melodic, seriously agitating score but also by the show’s uncompromising agenda. It’s no revelation to Green Day fans that “American Idiot” was conceived as a rock opera in the tradition of “The Who’s Tommy.”
Externalizing the rage of those who choose to lose themselves in the wasteland of a hypocritical nation (“I’m not part of a redneck agenda”), “American Idiot” shares many of the same ideological values that made a classic of “Hair.” Yet much of the fearlessly in-your-face staging by director Michael Mayer is also commemorative of “Rent.” More importantly, the frenzied choreography by Steven Hoggett with its shades of moshing and skanking are light years away from either “Rent” or “Hair.”
The ability of the company, even working within the minimalist demands of the book (by Green Day’s leader, Billie Joe Armstrong, and Mayer) to create an emotionally debilitated world of discontents is commendable. Suburbia is apparently no place for Johnny (John Gallagher, Jr.), a miserably unhappy, unwashed young man with a guitar. His plan to make a new life in the city with his two best friends, Will (Michael Esper) and Tunny (Stark Sands), is thwarted when Will decides to stay at home with Heather (Mary Faber), his pregnant girlfriend.
Although Tunny goes along, he is soon mesmerized by a group of shapely USO dancers and by a macho muscular recruiting officer. He enlists and is sent off to war. Left alone, Johnny finds comfort in the arms of a stunning and exciting woman, “Whatsername” (Rebecca Naomi Jones), but finds even more comfort in hard drugs thanks to the devilishly gender-bending pusher St. Vincent (Tony Vincent). Tunny finds out that war is hell. Will finds out that staying home on the couch is hell. And Johnny finds out how to make his own hell before everyone sings “We’re Coming Home Again.”
Some may care to define the evolving music of Green Day as “pop rock” or “emo rock.” Whatever one calls it, this ambitious score unquestionably defines the characters just enough for us to get the message: They are all depressed, disenfranchised, disengaged, devoid of aspirations, and oblivious to anything that might be recognized as the joy of living. The songs, including several from the band’s Grammy Award-winning new release “21st Century Breakdown” (like “21 Guns”) are mostly notable for their emotional turbulence. Occasionally there is an unexpected breakthrough of the fantastical: The obligatory, but also heartbreaking dream sequence/aerial ballet “Extraordinary Girl” that taps into the seriously injured Tunny’s hallucinations while in an army hospital.
At its best (which is most of its 100 minutes) “American Idiot” explodes like a keg of musical dynamite. At its most challenging, you may think that it’s a trial to watch the principal characters vent their pain and face their personal demons without any concessions made to any humor, sense of hope, or happiness. It never was for me. Odd as it may seem, “American Idiot” is not nearly as depressing as it could or should be. Perhaps it is because the sheer energy expended by the cast is as awesomely frightening as it is compelling. There is an outstandingly impassioned performance by Gallagher, Jr., a Tony winner for “Spring Awakening.” As Johnny, he virtually disintegrates before our eyes only to win us over with his pitiful naivete. Of the other astonishing performances, there is the poignancy of Sands awakening to his reality as the wounded Will that stands alone and lofty in its own right.
What is particularly impressive is how Green Day’s neo punk pop sound and politicized fury has been fitted into a striking visual dramatic frame. The action takes place in “Jingletown, USA” during the Bush years. It is played out against a giant wall plastered with posters, ads, and a variety of newsy graffiti. Wedged into this are metal fire escapes, and numerous TV screens on which abstracted visuals (impressive design by Darrel Maloney) are combined with war footage and close-ups of the stage action. These serve as intensely graphic support to the 21 songs.
Strikingly melodic songs like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and “Give Me Novacaine” also stand out for their trenchant and scalding lyrics. Certainly the despairing sentiments of the text as well as the collected anti-social rebelliousness of the characters often reflect aspects of “Spring Awakening.” It’s isn’t surprising to see that some of the collaborators on that show (Mayer, Gallagher Jr., scenic designer Christine Jones, and lighting designer Kevin Adams) have been fortuitously reunited.
Tom Kitt (the Tony and Pulitzer prizewinning composer of “Next to Normal”) has brilliantly orchestrated the blistering score for the seven on-stage musicians under the empowering direction of Carmel Dean. One more thought on the sound. Despite the necessary marriage of rock music with high volume, Brian Ronan’s sound design was laudable for keeping the balance of music and lyrics crystal clear and free of distortion. Whether you are haunted or taunted by “American Idiot,” you will have to concede that contemporary musical theater has come far indeed from the era of gals, gams, and gags. ***
“American Idiot,” St. James Theater, 246 West 44th Street $32 to $127. 212-239-6200.