American Idiot at the Orpheum Theater

Van Hughes (Johnny), Joshua Kobak (St. Jimmy) and the company of "American Idiot." Photo: Doug Hamilton

Green Day’s “American Idiot” is one smashing great show. You’re going to have to like rock, but if you do, you will be moved by this refreshingly original musical. Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day front man, lyricist and co-bookwriter) is one smart songwriter – and he knows all about dramatic action. The stage version of the band’s enormously successful album has racked up a pile of awards, including a Grammy for the musical’s album, but it missed the Tony for best new musical, although it received a nomination. I’m not surprised. It surely doesn’t fit the mold: it’s too short, it’s too punk and it’s not really a revue or a book musical. You could come up with a pretty good list of reasons why this show shouldn’t succeed in a musical theater format, but it most certainly does.

Whether or not this is true to the punk rock message is immaterial. “American Idiot” the musical just plain works from top to bottom. In a somewhat atypical turn, Michael Mayer served as both director and co-bookwriter. Great idea. Everything from set to lights, costumes to choreography “got” what this is all about. Even the sound, for once, was exquisite – loud, but pleasant frequencies. Mayer gets my Tony Award. I haven’t seen another Broadway touring show that locked together so perfectly.

Lifelong friends, Johnny (Van Hughes), Will (Jake Epstein) and Tunny (Scott J. Campbell), are stuck in suburbia, raging against the establishment and “calling out to idiot America.” They take three different but familiar paths in their leap beyond youth.  For one, it’s the military and a war zone, for another it’s (unexpected) fatherhood, and for the Armstrong look-alike, it’s drugs, personified in his dealer, St. Jimmy, played by Joshua Kobak, who is simply explosive.

It’s a story as raw and basic as punk rock itself. There’s nothing clever or contrived about this plot; it’s a tale that plays itself out over and over every day, and that’s why we can all believe it. Epstein and Campbell beautifully fashioned individual characters with unique voices and messages, and Hughes made a really messed up kid into an enormously appealing hero.

Gabrielle McClinton is a powerhouse singer and dancer, but played Whatsername’s sad vulnerability with real pathos. Nicci Claspell as The Extraordinary Girl, with the support of extraordinary technical knowhow, performs an upside-down head-banging feat. And she flies in an aerial pas de deux. Casting for the whole ensemble is virtually flawless.

The lyrics may seem straightforward enough – “I don’t care if you don’t care,” and “all my love for you” – but in this show, they never mean just one thing. The messages come in layers, often all at once, sung by different characters about different circumstances. You’d have to see this show more than once to catch them all – beautifully visualized with brilliant choreography and spectacular video and lighting projections. Last Night on Earth, Too Much Too Soon and especially Know Your Enemy are about danger, but they’re much more about how youth struggles with understanding the choices they face. The layers start stacking up; the weight of them triggering the characters’ outbursts of rage, anguish, love and longing. Bottom line: kids will rebel, and then hopefully they will find their own way “home”—wherever and whatever that is.

A homecoming is inevitable and it came off a little sentimental, given the rest of the narrative, but I suppose kids often do just go home when they screw up. As Johnny says in his last letter to his mom, “Remember when Dad said, ‘He’ll never amount to much of anything?’ I one-upped him. I amounted to nothing.” This kid who amounted to nothing is, however, completely likeable, in spite of being the “idiot,” as it turns out, and an Everyman for modern American youth.

Use discretion in bringing your children. Drugs, sex and adult language are pervasive. The show runs through Feb. 26.

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