Stage Review

American Idiot (2010)

AMERICAN IDIOT John Gallagher Jr. sings the music of Green Day
Image credit: Kevin Berne
AMERICAN IDIOT John Gallagher Jr. sings the music of Green Day
EW's GRADE
B

Details Opening Date: Apr 20, 2010; Lead Performances: John Gallagher Jr., Stark Sands and Tony Vincent; Writers: Billie Joe Armstrong, Michael Mayer; Director: Michael Mayer; Genre: Musical

Drugs, rebellion, and bohemian dishabille are hardly new to Broadway — Hair, Rent, and Spring Awakening all got there first, by a Tony mile. But American Idiot has something its taboo-baiting predecessors didn’t: an already-smash soundtrack courtesy of Green Day, the Bay Area band largely responsible for taking punk rock from the snarling, safety-pinned fringes to the multiplatinum mainstream over the past two decades.

The surprise in this fast-moving 90-minute spectacle (originated at California’s Berkeley Rep last fall) isn’t seeing a genre known for its often-atonal three-chord angst brought to the stage, it’s how easily the songs lend themselves to an all-jazz-hands-on-deck milieu. The show’s 21(!) musical numbers — primarily from the trio’s 2004 album American Idiot, plus last year’s 21st Century Breakdown — have their rock-operatic tendencies magnified and exalted by the young, committed cast.

It’s a good thing that they do, because the plot, as it were, is remedial: broad pencil lines sketched beneath the music’s heady full-color assault. John Gallagher Jr., a 2007 Tony winner for his role in Spring Awakening, stars as Johnny, a dreamy-eyed delinquent searching, with best friends Tunny (Stark Sands) and Will (Michael Esper), to escape the dead-end holding pen of small-town life by making a break for the big city; inevitable obstacles confront each one in the form of, respectively, heroin, the military, and a girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy.

The boys’ female counterparts -- especially Daphne Rubin-Vega doppelgänger Rebecca Naomi Jones and the vivid, malleable Christina Sajous — take on the show’s myriad challenges with ease, though Mary Faber, as Heather, the girl reluctantly with child, seems woefully miscast; she’s game, but her pert, clean-cut looks defy the rebel-yell material. While the book (and the minimal, obscenity-strewn dialogue) often disappoints, there’s much here that works: the muscular, rough-hewn choreography; the inspired staging; the infectious energy of the performers. Interracial relationships and cast members with markedly non-dancer body types are treated as utterly unremarkable, and are thus (paradoxically) worth mentioning. Certain set pieces also shine: a spangly, inspired army-recruitment scene, a piled-on bus ride, and an Aladdin-tinged bit of aerial magic.

Still, punk nihilism and showbiz spirit-fingers are uneasy bedfellows. And at times, Idiot’s efforts to meld the two are jarring. In that sense, Billie Joe Armstrong and director/co-writer Michael Mayer’s decision to emphasize songs over story may have actually done them a favor; it keeps the action moving swiftly and leaves little time to linger on narrative weakness. Purists on either side of the punk/Broadway divide will likely feel under-served by the mix, but for fans of both (and the ecstatic crowd seemed full of them), the evening offers a chaotic, cathartic experience. B

(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)

Originally posted Apr 20, 2010 Published in issue #1101 May 07, 2010 Order article reprints