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Theatre Wed Feb 08 2012
Rock operas and punk rock concept albums have both been around for decades, but it took Green Day singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong to finally combine the two. Co-written and directed by Tony Award winner Michael Mayer, American Idiot -- based on the Green Day album of the same name -- follows three bored, 20-something friends and the differing life paths they take: one stays in the suburbs, one joins the army, and one moves to the big city to follow his rock 'n' roll dreams.
...At least, that's what I could make of the plot. Through choreographed song performances and the occasional non-musical monologue, the characters' storylines are told through a melodramatic collage of anti-Bush/pro-"revolutionary" sentiment, middle-class white male angst, and sloppy Christian allegory (a la "Jesus of Suburbia"). By the end of the production, I wasn't sure what exactly it was trying to say.
Conceptual vagueness aside, American Idiot is a fast-paced, high-energy audiovisual spectacle. The lighting, choreography, set design, and on-stage live band playing the music worked incredibly well together, and what could have ended up an extra-long music video outtake or episode of "Glee" was instead an upbeat, yet intensely raw performance.
And although it was initially weird to hear Armstrong's voice imitated by a cast of male and female musical theater performers, it turns out Green Day's music sounds great on a Broadway stage. On one hand, most of the solo vocal performances sounded weak in comparison to the drums and amplified guitars. But when the cast sang in unison, it brought a new level of energy and emotional heft to the original songs, and in some ways highlighted the band's songwriting chops better than their actual recordings.
Van Hughes, who plays the main character, "Johnny," brought an infectious enthusiasm to both his spoken and vocal duties. What impressed me the most were several scenes where he had to sing and play guitar at the same time. While no one in the cast was noticeably bad, I felt Hughes' performance was a step above everyone else's, and really anchored the show.
American Idiot does exactly what musical theater should, but not much more than that. Despite efforts to wear its socio-political commentary on its sleeve, the performance is best enjoyed without thinking too hard about what you're seeing.
American Idiot runs Tuesdays through Sundays through February 19 at the Oriental Theatre (24 W. Randolph). Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased online, at the box office, or by calling 312-977-1700.