Rock Album Thrives on Stage
Published: Friday, February 21, 2014
Updated: Friday, February 21, 2014 01:02
In 2004, Green Day released its seventh album, “American Idiot,” to critical acclaim, commercial success and two Grammy Awards. Now considered one of the greatest rock albums of the new millennium, “American Idiot” was transformed into a stage musical of the same name that premiered on Broadway in 2010.
The show features new arrangements of all of the songs from the titular album, as well as several tracks from the band’s 2009 record, “21st Century Breakdown.” Although its New York production shut its lights in 2011, “American Idiot” has continued its life on the road. In its third national tour, which plays at the National Theatre from Feb. 18 to 23, “American Idiot” feels a little underdeveloped as a meaningful piece of theater. However, while it lacks complexity, “American Idiot’s” audiovisual spectacle makes it well worth the ticket price.
Unlike some other jukebox musicals, “American Idiot” follows a plot that the members of Green Day imagined when they wrote the album. The original songs come together to tell the story of Jesus of Suburbia, his alter ego St. Jimmy and his love interest Whatshername. Johnny (Jared Nepute) is a fleshed out version of Jesus of Suburbia, and both St. Jimmy (Carson Higgins) and Whatshername (Olivia Puckett) become central characters in the story. For the stage, several characters and subplots were added, but the initial thread that runs through the 2004 record remains intact.
Based on its description, the musical might sound like a Green Day episode of “Glee,” but, make no mistake, its 20-something characters are much too cool for school. Flinging literal and figurative middle fingers to the world, Johnny, Will (Casey O’Farrell) and Tunny (Dan Tracy) spend their days smoking, drinking and sitting around. In a post-9/11 America filled with violence and mass media, they have trouble identifying with the red, white and blue. In the beginning of the musical, they decide to make a change and leave their hometown. Each of these men faces his own battle — drug addiction, military service or a girlfriend with an unexpected pregnancy — with fear, angst and passion.
Despite the gravity of these issues and the force with which they are performed, parts of the plot feel insincere and simplified. Nearly all of the play is in song, with only a handful of spoken lines. Although the songs never feel out of place, they are rarely explicit in how they are meant to progress the story. Therefore, the audience must rely on the visual indications given by the actors, which at times can be unclear.
Fortunately, “American Idiot” functions as much as a rock concert as it does a stage musical. Most mainstream listeners will be familiar with hits like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Holiday,” and whether or not the plot points are intriguing, the talented cast makes sure these songs are entertaining. All three leading men provide robust vocals, but they also expertly display a softer side, particularly in a moving rendition of “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” The women of “American Idiot” are also given their turn to rock out. Mariah MacFarlane, as Heather, impresses with her powerhouse voice, and Olivia Puckett exposes both her sweetness and ferocity.
Just as the electrifying music shocks the ears, the set and lighting provide an incredible feast for the eyes. The metal scaffolding and city windows are at first reminiscent of “Rent,” but through the use of bright lighting and projections, the stage is constantly transforming. On top of this, dozens of high-definition screens cover the walls, and the messages and images displayed enhance the impact of several scenes. Set designer Christine Jones and lighting designer Kevin Adams won Tony Awards for their work on the original production, and their efforts on the national tour, along with those of Darrel Maloney, who created the projections, make for a mesmerizing visual experience.
Interestingly, the themes of confused national identity that run throughout the songs and plot are perhaps best fit for Washington, D.C. On top of the National Theatre stage, a sculpted bald eagle is proudly perched. Although not a part of the set, the eagle elevates the struggle of the young Americans on stage. When the company sings about not wanting to be an “American Idiot” an audience in the nation’s capital might be more conscious of what these characters are rejecting.
Truthfully, not all of “American Idiot’s” elements add up, but if you can excuse a few missteps, what is left is an undeniably entertaining musical. Performed by a stellar cast, both the hits and the little-known songs pack a punch. This, in combination with the visual wonders on stage, makes up for the missing depth in parts of the plotline. Loud, proud and unforgiving, “American Idiot” will infect your head with Green Day’s music for days after you’ve left the theater, and most likely, you won’t mind it.