by SOPHIE KERMAN
As a general rule, my inner skeptic is not a fan of musicals – but a killer concert, on the other hand, I can totally get on board with. American Idiot, a recent addition to a slew of one-dimensional pop-inspired musicals (Mamma Mia!, Spring Awakening, etc.), bypasses all of my cynicism by presenting an hour and a half of music by Green Day, delivered with maximum emotional commitment by a cast of extremely talented and energetic performers. Presented for a limited engagement at the Orpheum Theatre, American Idiot leaves other musicals in the dust – and with plenty of $25 student rush tickets, there is no reason not to try and grab a seat.
Plot-wise, American Idiot doesn’t offer anything particularly ground-breaking. The book by Michael Mayer and Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong tells the story of three friends, all of whom try to leave suburbia and don’t manage to find the liberation they’re looking for. Johnny (Van Hughes) falls victim to a romantic idea of striking out on his own in the big city – as well as to St. Jimmy’s (Joshua Kobak) reliable supply of narcotics – while Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) looks for his own meaning in the army. Will (Jake Epstein) doesn’t make it out of the ‘burbs at all, finding himself saddled with a pregnant girlfriend (Leslie McDonel) who looks forward to domesticity just as little as he does.
You could say that these themes – drugs, war, and suburbia – make American Idiot the Rent for the new millenium: while AIDS, drugs, and sexual orientation were the hot issues for the 90s, the past decade has been much more heavily colored by the war in Iraq. But while Rent‘s pop music tended to see the silver lining on its bohemian cloud, Green Day’s punk aesthetic is much more unforgiving of its subject matter. (The closest it comes to glorifying drug use is in the choreography for “Last Night on Earth,” in which a tourniquet is used in a sort of seduction between Johnny and Whatsername (Gabrielle McClinton) – but that ends up looking so creepy that the scene doesn’t come across as an endorsement of the heroin lifestyle.)
As a side note, one of the production’s minor quirks is that in its vehement rebellion against contemporary society, there is not a single mention of the internet or cyber culture. Since many of the real-life Green Day fans I knew dreamed of rebellion while battling it out on their PlayStations, I thought it was odd that the most high-tech prop in the show was the old TV on Will’s floor.
In general, though, the stage design fuels the show in interesting ways. While the set itself is a pleasingly spartan warehouse (Christine Jones), the walls are covered with video screens which provide witty commentary on the action. At times, it seems like there’s just too much to look at between Darrel Maloney‘s video montages, Steven Hoggett‘s dynamic and aggressive choreography, and the charismatic ensemble of actors themselves (not to mention the six instrumentalists on stage). But because all of the different visuals feed into the message of the music in their own way, you can enjoy each of the different elements on stage without feeling like you’re missing out on something important.
As a musical, American Idiot takes a soundtrack that’s already dramatic and builds a theatrical scaffold around it, bringing to life the anger and insecurity that comes from having to make life choices when none of the options look that good. The plot and the characters never really break stereotype, but I suppose that’s a problem that regular musical-fans will probably not care about. And for the rest of us cynics, Green Day’s hard-hitting music and cutting lyrics will let you pretend you’re watching substantial theater while actually just rocking out to a kick-ass live concert.
Green Day’s AMERICAN IDIOT, at the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis. February 21-26, 2012. Tickets: $35-80, available in person at the State Theatre Box Office, online at HennepinTheatreTrust.org, by calling Ticketmaster at 1.800.982.2787 or at a Ticketmaster Ticket Center.