Though performed more as a series of vignettes instead of as a traditional, structured story, the show is popularly known for taking its inspiration from the music of the rock band Green Day, and culls the bulk of its material from the group’s 2004 release American Idiot as well as its platinum 2009 follow-up 21st Century Breakdown.
Starring actor Van Hughes, who recently starred in the Broadway edition of American Idiot! opposite Green Day’s own Billie Joe Armstrong, the performance tells the story of three friends (Johnny, Will, and Tunny), normal guys on the cusp of the 21st century before reality crashes in on them from all angles.
For Johnny (Van Hughes), reality means meeting a girl called “Whatsername” (Gabrielle McClinton) and falling in with the charismatic yet self-destructive “St. Jimmy” (Joshua Kobak). While such a role places the actor undertaking it under a heavy burden, Van Hughes ably rose to the occasion and committed himself fully to his character. Whether moving from tragic figure to comedian to bedside balladeer (sometimes in the space of a single scene), the young actor was a force to reckoned with and even risked several falls while vaulting energetically over pieces of the stage setting.
Meanwhile, as a counterpoint to Van Hughes’ anarchic Johnny, the role of Tunny (portrayed by actor Scott J. Campbell) was a sobering look at the life of one of the many soldiers who spent time serving the U.S. in a conflict overseas. Though eventually losing his leg for his country, Tunny also meets an “Extraordinary Girl” (Nicci Claspell) during his travels and returns home changed but still proud.
Campbell successfully balanced the difficult nature of his character’s choice to join the military and his eventual handicapped homecoming, and did so with a strong singing voice and dignity that left the crowd firmly in his corner even when the loss of his limb was revealed after an extended aerial dance number that was as graceful as it was endearing.
Lastly, for the character of Will (played by actor Jake Epstein) many of his adventures found themselves confined to the setting of his living room couch. After discovering his young girlfriend (Leslie McDonel) is pregnant early on in the story, the idealistic young man is unable to leave home with his friends and instead hears from them in letters, all while his budding family starts to crumble around him.
Though it would have been easy to portray such a character as a deadbeat with no direction, Epstein actually accomplished the difficult task of making the audience relate to a young man who in choosing to stay behind and raise a child also loses his own freedom and much of the spirit that was compelling him to live in the first place. Also, when finally reunited with his child during the musical’s finale the moment felt completely genuine, which as any actor will tell you, is no mean feat.
Watch a montage of scenes from “American Idiot! the musical” here:
In terms of direction and stage setting, American Idiot! was also a success. Consisting mostly of second-hand furniture, scaffolding, and metal girders straight out of the Rent playbook – the scenery was a fitting vision that played to the strengths of the characters’ lost children mentality. Additionally, the abundant use of television screens especially in the show’s opening was brutally effective in not only detailing how media-driven many of our lives have become but also acting as a stark reminder of just how much our country has gone through in the 10 plus years since 9/11.
For sound, the inclusion of a live band on stage, as well as the actors’ own skilled musicianship, was a refreshing sight to behold and hear. Van Hughes especially proved convincing as a budding rocker, and the whole cast’s rendition of the Green Day hit “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” during a second curtain call was an unexpected treat. Even a clever line by a character, which mentioned going to see a band that “probably sucked” was used as a moment to break the fourth wall and featured several humorous double-takes exchanged by the actors and musicians in the wings.
The music itself too made a strong case towards revisiting the Green Day catalogue. Despite the accolades that immediately come to mind when thinking of the album that started everything, Billie Joe Armstrong and company appear to have a natural touch for writing for the stage. Heck, go see them live in concert. Anyone who has can tell you that the boys from Berkeley have a flair for the dramatic. And it’s worth noting that much of the material included in American Idiot! that hadn’t previously appeared on a Green Day release could easily have found itself on any of the band’s releases since 1997’s Nimrod.
But what about all that sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll?
In the end, the truth is simple. We have lived through extraordinary times, and our moments are already history. But, hey, isn’t that always the way? It’s the art that we make from our memories that matters. The past may not always be pretty, but for survivors it’s the story of their lives. And most wouldn’t have it any other way.