I was 17 years old when Green Day released American Idiot, their politically-tinged punk rock opera that at the time felt like the most lively and visceral protest music response to the Bush years and the Iraq War. So I was basically who the record was about, with all the buddings of political awareness tied up elegantly with suburban disaffection and adolescent angst. The surge of three chord rock songs and overwrought punk snarl mimicked the adrenaline coursing through my veins, and its rock opera ambition made the music seem as grandiose and important as my emotions felt.
While the album was well-received at the time as a sharp, of-the-moment critique of its time, something which felt mostly absent from the younger generation of artists, looking back on the album now, particularly in its guise as a Broadway musical, which debuted in 2010 and now serves as the finale to Trustus Theatre’s 2015-2016 season, lessens some of that temporality.
In his program notes, director Chad Henderson notes how thrilling it is to “work with this cast and production team to tell this story that, at times, feels like it’s been taken from our collective diaries” while also comparing to the 1967 counterculture musical Hair. That strikes me as particularly apt–as much as Billie Joe Armstrong might have been responding to his frustrations over new millenia Republican nonsense, he’s really working through some very archetypal coming of age themes that have been a part of American culture since the invention of the teenager in the post-World War II era: rebellion, shiftlessness, love, loss, and resignation. And it’s the timelessness of those themes, and how readily and ably Armstrong invokes them in his songs, that really give the album-turned-musical legs.
The Green Day frontman collaborated with director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, Hedwig & the Angry Itch) on the book that sketched out just a bit more narrative from the original album, adding minimal lines of dialogue and additional songs to make the three main characters–Johnny (Garrett Bright), Tunny (Patrick Dodds), and Will (Cody Lovell)–more distinct, but other than that it’s the staging and performances themselves that are the real draw here. Utilizing a large cast and an industrial-punk set (designed by Baxter Engle) marked by television screens flickering through images of war, news, politics, and pop culture (both from the 9/11 era and our current Kardashian/Trump moment), this is a jukebox musical at its best. The technical achievement here, given the number of mobile microphones, screens, staging levels, and musicians required, is stunning, borrowing elements from both a live concert and a music video as the show dictates, something absolutely necessary given the relative thinness of the plot.
Bright owns his aspiring rock star-turned-junkie leading role, conveying just the right notes of youthful earnestness and foolhardy brashness that Green Day celebrates. As one of the central deliverers of Armstrong’s signature vocals, he also distinguishes himself by shifting from the rough adenoidal bray the frontman sometimes uses to a sweeter, more melancholy style that better fits the narrative, particularly on a couple of the crucial acoustic numbers. Both Dodds and Lovell also acquit themselves nicely, turning in great performances as the punk-goes-military recruit dude and (too)-early blue collar father archetype, respectively, as does Michael Hazin as St. Jimmy, Johnny’s devilish alter-ego. The presence of St. Jimmy as a character and Hazin as a performer also provides a necessary counterweight of rock star swagger to the waves of emo-ness that the play at some points almost drowns in. And while the women characters are mostly relegated to the backseat of this boy-centric story, Katie Leitner as Heather gets some quality time in the spotlight as Tunny’s pregnant girlfriend and hits some quality high notes to give the show some diva pizazz, while Devin Anderson plays Whatshername with a magnetic power that absolutely rescues the part from its tertiary role. Avery Bateman also sparkles in limited use as the Extraordinary Girl.
For all the great individual performances, though, this show hits its high points when the large cast is all out on stage together reveling in these songs. The two big medleys from the album, “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Homecoming,” shine particularly bright, as the large house band rockets through them with glee from their perch above the stage (led by music director Chris Cockrell) and the young chorus gets to holler the closest things to anthems produced in their own teenage years. “Nobody likes you/ everyone left you/they’re all out without you having fun” they sing with earnest abandon. We’re coming home again, indeed.
In those moments, I was often surprised by how well most of the songs translated so deftly to the stage, even for folks who aren’t necessarily fans of the band and familiar with the album, thanks to how electrifying it is to see them brought to life. In fact, I would say the more familiar numbers, like the opening “American Idiot,” might have suffered a bit more than the theatrical album cuts which already has quite a bit of dramatic flare even before adaptation.
As for those that are or were fans of the album, like much of the cast obviously is, there’s a level of catharsis to living through them that can’t be denied. Seeing them all come out in a long line at the end of the night to take their bow, smiling as much in their eyes as their faces, in all of their rock ‘n’ roll sweat and glory, is to witness something a bit more than just another musical. They’ve really celebrated the power of music as rebellion, as salve, and as salvation, itself. And that’s really something.
Green Day’s American Idiot runs through July 30th. For ticket information go to trustus.org