Though the Broadway stage has been a platform for years telling stories as different and wide as the ocean and continents it surrounds there have only been a handful of shows that have honed its sights on a younger audience. I’m not referring to children (there’s a boatload of shows for the kiddies); its teenagers and twenty-something’s I’m talking about. In 2009 that changed. Green Day’s AMERICAN IDIOT made its Berkeley debut and in 2010 took Broadway audiences on a ride subsequent to a runaway train. The bands concept album of the same name became a multi-million seller catapulting their star and world recognition to another level. Though at the time it seemed unlikely the smash music would one day become the latter on a Broadway stage but as I always say, “Never say never.” In the right hands anything is possible.
Billie Joe Armstrong’s lyrics put to Green Day’s punk/pop music has always been infused with youthful energy and a bit of angst. Collaborating with Michael Mayer they penned the book to AMERICAN IDIOT. What they came up with was a tale that everyone no matter what the age or circumstance in life could relate to. Three young men from American suburbia try to find direction and meaning in their lives as the world around them caves and falls apart. Of course and not surprisingly elements of drugs, sex and rock’n’roll are present but that’s not all there is. The story is post the 9-11 tragedies and reflects the changing of the guard, if you will. In that vein it’s not surprising to note the characters Jimmy (Jared Nepute), Tunny (Dan Tracy) and Will (Casey O’Farrell) reflect the same confusion and discontent we all did back then and in some cases still do. This is precisely why AMERICAN IDIOT connects with its audience.
The lead actors are exceptional in their roles. They are completely convincing as twenty-something frustrated young men struggling to not only find their way but to find meaning behind it all. Reminiscent of the rock musical HAIR, IDIOT is raw with emotion and a perfect combination of music and artistic direction; thanks to Armstrong and director Mayer. Other member of the ensemble cast are just as riveting and bring the volume of the show to an ear splitting scream. Much to the delight of the Green Day fans in the audience. The 90-minute show is so full of energy I wondered if the players would be able to keep up the pace. Interestingly enough there was no intermission (which is typical for Broadway). My view on this is, had they taken the usual 20 minute break the show may have lost its high energy non-stop momentum or audience members who came to the show out of curiosity may have headed for the doors. This is rock’n’roll after all. As Jimmy, Tunny and Will begin to find and deal with their own plights in life they part going their separate ways. To their credit each actor gets to display the raw emotion of their characters bringing them to life changing decisions. Neptune for me was the most intriguing of the three. An accomplished actor, singer, and guitarist, he delves into the drug culture giving rise to his alter-ego, St. Jimmy played by Carson Higgins. Higgins is a powerhouse as soon as he hits the stage not only vocally but his presence is felt as emotions turn. Neptune is no slouch either when it comes to vocal ability. His voice is nothing short of point on when relaying these songs. As his character his is believable, real, and at times heartbreaking.
Will struggles with his girlfriend Heather’s (Mariah MacFarlane) unplanned pregnancy giving an emotional performance on “Give Me Novacaine,” and “Nobody Likes You.” Tunny not unlike many after 9-11 decides to join the military hoping to find a greater purpose to his life. As cliché as the story line may be Tracy is wonderful and convincing as he deals with the ‘wounded soldier plight’ subplot. Whereas this could have turned corny and over dramatized Tracy holds his own and plays the audiences heartstrings minus the expected drawn out sentimentality. Though the ladies in the cast play more of a supportive role there are a number of stand-out performances. Party-girl Olivia Puckett (Whatsername, a woman Johnny meets while in a drug haze) does an incredible job with “Letterbomb.” “Too Much Too Soon,” is tackled by Josephine Spada and certainly leaves her mark not only on the song but audience as well. If I had to pick the most poignant moment in the show two stand out above all others. “Wake Me When September Ends,” is brilliant as it begins with the three main characters playing acoustic guitars and morphs into the entire company center stage ‘all grown-up” representing what has become of their reckless and rebellious youth. The climax of the show is after the company has taken its final bow and the curtain rains down. We are treated to an incredible version of “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” as the ensemble serenades us all playing guitars.
The choreography by Steven Hoggett keeps the pace jumping. The lighting by Kevin Adams, orchestration and arrangements by Tom Kitt are top notch and scenic design by Christine Jones melds well within the context of the music. Especially effective is the wall of televisions flashing images and news reports encompassing the past ten years of so of our country’s growth and problems. I must also note the live five-piece band on stage is a kick in the teeth. For once this is good thing; no need for the dentist Novocain here. They are flawless as they run through each song with incredible musicianship and their feet firmly planted in rock. For contemporary audiences AMERICAN IDIOT is a must see show. Of course it doesn’t hurt if you’re a Green Day fan but it’s not an essential element to enjoy the show. Be prepared to be blown away not only by the performances but sheer volume alone. I hope you have the time of your life.