DETROIT -- Back in 2004, post 911 aftershocks were still rumbling and a generation of disaffected youth was grappling with the concept of a world at war, Internet information overload and government-induced paranoia of a terrorist lurking on every corner and behind every shrub.
Great fodder for a cheerful stage musical, eh?
"Green Day's American Idiot" -- running this week at the Detroit Opera House -- has fleshed-out the punk rock trio's chronicle of that zeitgeist, a Grammy Award-winning slab of impressionistic but literate reflection that defiantly took George W. Bush's America to task. On stage, meanwhile, its philosophical bent gets more linear parameters, a production that's more impactful than entertaining but flashes occasional brilliance, both musical and visual, and a fresh, ferocious energy that plows the show through its 90 intermissionless minutes.
Punk rock, of course, is not supposed to be Broadway fare, and to the credit of both Green Day and director/writer Michael Mayer the Tony Award-winning production hits the boards on its own terms without neutering or reinventing its source's message like, say, "The Who's Tommy." Performed on a gritty, loft-like stage set surrounded by more than 30 HD video monitors and versatile scaffolding, "American Idiot" is a little bit "Hair" and a little bit "Rent," with a dollop of "Peter Pan" and more than a bit of Mayer's edgy "Spring Awakening."
It doesn't shy away from its rugged subject matter, either, from the unfocused, righteous rage right down to the liberal profanity and graphic depictions of sex and drug use that sent some unsuspecting opening night patrons out the door during the show.
At its stage core, "American Idiot" becomes the story of three friends -- Johnny (Van Hughes), Will (Jake Epstein) and Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) who seek to ditch Jingletown, USA, asking "are we gonna waste our lives or are we gonna get the f--- out of here?" Johnny and Tunny do -- Will is kept back by pregnant girlfriend Heather (Leslie McDonel) -- though Tunny quickly tires of their aimless trajectory and winds up enlisting in the army for overseas combat. The script tracks their individual ascents into darkness -- Johnny under the wing of the drug-peddling St. Jimmy (Joshua Kobak) -- and their return home eight months later, a bit wiser for the wear but without any real resolution for the future.
In many ways "American Idiot" works best as a visualization of the album, particularly during fluidly choreographed renditions of the "Jesus of Suburbia" suite, "Holiday," "Before the Lobotomy" and "Know Your Enemy," poignant interpretations of "Are We the Waiting," "When It's Time" and "Wake Me Up When September Ends." The ariel duet by Campbell and Nicci Claspell during "Extraordinary Girl" is particularly striking, while another suite, "Homecoming," ties up the plot points in speedy fashion before the 17 guitar-toting cast members, resembling a Jingletown high school reunion, plays an encore coda of Green Day's 1997 hit "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)."
"American Idiot" also works best for those who are familiar with the album in the first place; they're the ones who will best appreciate the nuances of Tom Kitt's ensemble vocal arrangements, as well as the deft inclusion of songs from 2009's "21st Century Breakdown" to give the story more dimension -- or the unobtrusive but complementary touches from the six-piece, onstage band. Eight years on, and in the wake of the Occupy movement and a slew of new domestic and international concerns and technological developments, Green Day's "opera" seems both prescient and dated, but on stage it's certainly more than just a blast from the recent past.
"Green Day's American Idiot" runs through Sunday, Jan. 22, at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway. Tickets are $25-$85. Call 313-237-7464 or visit www.broadwayindetroit.com
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