Monday, September 24, 2012

An American Story: Orpheum Theatre's "American Idiot" bravely brings a generation’s protest album to life onstage

You probably remember the 2004 phenomenon that was Green Day’sAmerican Idiot.
Exploding from popular music charts to the Grammys, the album became not only the rock opera of a generation, but also its protest album. Replete with rich storylines and characters, it was a natural choice for theatrical adaptation.
Which is what leads us to the touring production of American Idiot at the Orpheum Theatre through Sunday. The show pays respectful homage to the album, and takes successful liberties, mixing it up with the addition of some new songs and the imposition of a female perspective. It’s a great change of pace from the usual Disney-candy-coated fare we typically see of Broadway’s other national acts.
Bringing the punk rock anthem to life are three restless young men and their love interests who wrestle with heroin addiction, the after effects of the Iraq war, and domestic strife.
Van Hughes, who originated the role of Johnny on Broadway, is clearly not acting but living a part designed for him. His skinny, dirty punk-rock aesthetic and pitch perfect but still edgy voice is shockingly good. So good, in fact, that he could almost out-Billie Joe Armstrong Billie Joe Armstrong. He’s well balanced by sinister Joshua Kobak’s Marilyn Manson-infused St. Jimmy, who is alternately wacky and terrifying
Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) is also excellent, playing a character reminiscent of countless country boys who join the army only to find that it’s ‘too much too soon.’ His twangy and naïve voice is unbearably sad to hear. Jake Epstein (Will) is the weakest link of the three leading men, with a voice that is just a little too sweet to believe in an angsty and rebellious role.
The female principals are all pleasant surprises. Gabrielle McClinton is stunning as Whatsername, with a nuclear performance that explodes from a classically remixed rendition of “21 Guns” into a truly fierce “Letterbomb.” Leslie McDonel (Heather) and Nicci Claspell (The Extraordinary Girl) are also both rock solid leads.
The updates to American Idiot’s score are well-designed, with a few tunes transcending from mere rock to the absolutely sublime. The best include a bluesy update of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” a harrowingly gorgeous new piece called “Last Night on Earth,” and a lovely three-part rendition of “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”
Unlike many slick Broadway shows (think Beauty and the Beast), most of this show’s choreography is strikingly awkward. One exception is the show’s closing number “Whatsername,” a disjointed ballet interlude that is an excellent finish, or the lyrical heroin dance in “Last Night on Earth.”
At its heart, American Idiot is a great album and a great show because it eschews the easy route and happy ending. It doesn’t back away from explicitly (and I mean explicitly) showing dissatisfied young people thirsting for purpose and occupation in every crevice of life that they can find it.
It’s a commonly lived contemporary narrative, but one that is too often overlooked or boiled down. More shows would do well to embrace American Idiot’s bravura.
+ American Idiot continues through Sunday, Feb. 26. For more information