Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"American Idiot" at the Orpheum Theatre

I'm a theater geek.  I don't listen to rock music, I listen to musical theater soundtracks and folk music.  I was unfamiliar with the music of Green Day, and as a general rule I'm not a fan of the jukebox musical.  But I've only heard good things about the 2010 musical American Idiot, based on Green Day's 2004 album of the same name.  And I do love the rock musical (starting with this, continuing through this, and more recently this and this and this).  So I went to see American Idiot on tour at the Orpheum Theatre, and I loved it.  What HAIR is to the late 1960s and RENT is to the mid 1990s, American Idiot is to the early 21st century - a musical that deals with the very real issues facing the young people of the day.  And even though I'm of the RENT generation, I think everyone can remember that time in their lives, dealing with love, friendship, parents, war, starting a career, sex, drugs, rock and roll, and just trying to figure out what life is and where you fit into it.

Unlike most jukebox musicals that take a random collection of songs and make up some silly contrived story to tie them all together, American Idiot is constructed of one entire album (with a few additional songs added), more or less sung through in order.  And since most albums (good ones anyway) have a cohesive theme and a narrative, not much additional made-up story needs to be added.  What book writers Billie Joe Armstrong (lead singer of Green Day, who also wrote the lyrics) and Michael Mayer (the Tony-winning director of Spring Awakening) have done is let the songs tell the story, adding just a few bits of spoken dialogue to fill in the gaps.  There isn't much of a plot, but we really get to know these characters and experience their lives through the music. While these songs were not written for the stage (although they always intended it to be staged or filmed), they lend themselves very well to the stage.  They're story-songs, with a nice mix of loud and fast rock songs and quieter, more poignant moments of just a guitar and a voice (my favorite musical sound).

This first national tour features a talented, young, energetic, compelling cast, several of whom come from the Broadway production which closed last year.  Van Hughes leads the cast as Johnny, a role he played on Broadway, taking over from John Gallagher Jr.   (who won a Tony for playing my favorite character Moritz in Spring Awakening).  Van is fantastic as the young man who leaves home for the big city to find his life.  He has a great voice both for the loud rock songs and the softer ones, and is passionate and sympathetic and real in his portrayal (and he's a soap actor, so I have to love him for that too). Johnny's friend Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) accompanies him on his journey, but then decides to join the army and go to war, where he's injured and meets a nurse (Nicci Claspell).  What follows is a really lovely aerial/dream sequence, in which both Scott and Nicci continue to sing beautifully as they fly and twirl through the air. Johnny's friend Will (Jake Epstein) decides to stay home with his pregnant girlfriend (Leslie McDonel, who at one point sports a Joe Mauer t-shirt!), and spends most of the show sitting on the couch and drinking (and occasionally splashing the audience). The   entire ensemble is strong, and I was happy to recognize Matt DeAngelis, who played Woof in last year's touring production of HAIR.

During the show, I was frequently reminded of two of my favorite musicals HAIR and RENT.  This is not to say that American Idiot is unoriginal or copycat, but that it's carrying on the tradition of the rock musical into the 21st century.  Like Roger in RENT can only find his song through Mimi, Johnny writes a song for the woman he loves (the fierce Gabrielle McClinton) and sings it to her while she's sleeping (unconscious).  And I'm sure I heard the word "Glory" (Roger's song) several times.  St. Jimmy (an effectively evil Joshua Kobak) is like the drug dealer in RENT ("got any C man, got any D man...").  Tunny contemplates going off to war like Claude does in HAIR (Afghanistan instead of Vietnam), and comes home a changed man.  Even the set reminds me a little of RENT with it's stairs and levels, and the fabulous on-stage band (with musical direction by a very enthusiastic and entertaining Jared Stein).  One thing that's totally new is the awesome choreography - it's fresh and cool and edgy and urgent.

I've already added the American Idiot soundtrack to my collection of soundtracks.  So I guess I do listen to rock music, or at least rock music through musical theater.  The show is playing only through this Sunday, and even though I rarely pay $100+ for a theater ticket, even on Broadway, I'm really glad I had the chance to experience American Idiot.  This was a much different crowd than I usually see at the theater, younger and more casually dressed, and several families with teenagers. Whatever gets young people to the theater is OK with me.  If you go, make sure to stay for the curtain call.  It's something unpredictable, but in the end it's right.  (This is a song that I recognized that I didn't even realize was a Green Day song!  Proving once again that everything I know I learned from theater.)