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)