Whether you’re a Green Day fan or not, you’d be a fool not to check out the play based on their music, American Idiot, currently at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown Los Angeles. The musical is a coming of age story set in the all too familiar post 9/11 world and follows three friends trying to navigate their paths through a changed society. It’s a story about today’s youth and the road from slackerdom to adulthood. A road everyone must ‘Walk Alone’ but we get to enjoy as an audience together.
I should start by saying that I am a huge Green Day fan. In fact, their concert at the Staples Center a few years back is one of my all time favorite live shows ever. So as you might have guessed, I was more than excited when I heard there would be a musical crossover and that Los Angeles would be a stop on its tour. I am also an avid theater-goer. I grew up attending Broadway plays in Manhattan and have become a regular attendee of shows at the Ahmanson, Pantages, and other LA theater district venues.
That said, sometimes high expectations can only set you up for a let down. And at first, that was the case. But like all slackers, it was just a slow start and with a little nudging, I was soon well on my way to enjoying the show.
The play is based on the band’s multi-platinum 2004 concept album of the same name and also includes tracks from “21st Century Breakdown” woven together to tell a brilliantly choreographed story (courtesy of choreographer Steve Hoggott) of struggle against the boredom of suburbia, rebellion against the conservative establishment, and lack of general respect for the media and government. It is a rally cry of the youth of today who grew up in a time when the world and country as we knew it, was literally falling apart.
We open the play with “American Idiot” sounding over a series of TV monitors with clips of tabloid media reports mixed among news stories of recent bombings- TV during the Bush era. Then we break into a compilation of songs including “Jesus of Suburbia”, “City of the Damned”, “I Don’t Care”, “Dearly Beloved” and “Tales of Another Broken Home”. While the intent was to kick-start the house rocking, I felt like the opening musical sequence was too long and despite loving these songs, I wanted to be invested in the characters first. My fear was that the show would turn into a Green Day concert with a few cheap ploys at plot. The show is directed by Michael Mayer who co-wrote the book with Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and while the music is electrifying, I worried it would overtake the story and true character development would be missing.
Luckily, I was wrong.
“American Idiot” follows three friends- Johnny (Van Hughes), Will (Jake Epstein) and Tunny (Scott J. Campbell). They have dreams of leaving their small-town and becoming a big city rock band, but for Will the dream is over before it begins when his girlfriend (a standout performance by Leslie McDonel) announces she is pregnant. Will finds himself stranded on his couch with only a bottle and a bong to drown his sorrows. After arriving in the (anonymous) city, Tunny finds himself a lost soul and spends most of his time sleeping until he decides (in an out of place dream-like sequence featuring a half nude poster boy dance routine for the military) to join the armed forces and get some direction in his life. Johnny finds himself alone until he falls head over heels for a girl named Whatshername (an electric and risky performance by Gabrielle McClinton) and befriends local drug dealer St. Jimmy (Joshua Kobak).
The three men take very different paths and struggle with their own demons along the way. Will sees his wife walk out on him with his child and find new love. Tunny watches his friends die in battle and loses his leg but finds love with a nurse (resulting in an awesome high-flying aerial dance number to the song “Extraordinary Girl”). The story that becomes the most central is that of Johnny’s played passionately by Van Hughes who’s strong vocals and vulnerability have the audience empathizing with him, even as he shoots up and tears down his life. In the end, he finds himself borrowing money for a bus ride back to the small town where it all started. The three men reunite having lived and lost, but we get the sense this is their beginning not the end.
Some of the musical highlights are the defiant “Know Your Enemy” and the soulful “Wake Me Up When September Ends”. The great thing about this play is that when I looked around, I saw middle aged men rocking out beside teenage boys. It’s a play whose themes of rebellion and counter-culture transcend age, but whose current take on the world we live in, rings a crystal clear cry for change.
As a band, Green Day has always filled it’s lyrics with thoughts that provoke and question the very culture and fibers of our nation, and this play is an extension of what makes their music so great.
While I went in to the show expecting the more light-hearted, celebratory experience of Rock of Ages (the last musical I saw…and loved) and came out feeling more reminiscent of the tone and emotionality of Rent (another show I hold in high regard), I’d say American Idiot finds its home somewhere comfortably between the two. It doesn’t have quite as much heart as the latter or quite as much fun as the former, but its balance makes it a show a wide audience can truly enjoy.
I know I did.