Punk rock and hit Broadway musical. Mutually exclusive on the surface, but American Idiot goes (a bit) deeper. This stage version of Green Day’s same-named 2004 international smash album enjoyed a successful run on Broadway and grabbed a couple of Tony Awards. It has now hit the road, with Toronto having the honour of hosting the first non-NYC run. I checked out opening night, Dec. 28, with a sense of curiosity, if not the highest expectations; I admit to a general aversion to musicals, plus I was uncertain as to how the anti-establishment genre would work in an essentially pro-establishment context.
The good news for non-musical fans: American Idiot is more concert than play. This show is a very direct transfer of the album to the stage, rather than a radical theatrical adaptation. There’s very little added dialogue; the show relies almost exclusively on the songs for any development of plot or character.
Production values are certainly top-notch. Forty TV sets flashed slogans and footage, adding atmosphere, the lighting was suitably blinding and the sound, surely the most important part, was faithful and loud in all the right ways. Perhaps this technical efficiency is due to director Michael Mayer, who also helmed the Broadway run. That said, the live band wasn’t much more than adequate — and surely it wouldn’t have hurt the bassist to trim his long locks, in the spirit of the show.
The central part of the emotionally conflicted Johnny was taken by Van Hughes, reprising his role from the Broadway run. He acquitted himself admirably, especially on a couple of tunes primarily done solo. Also impressive were the two Canadians in the cast with key roles, as Will and Tunny (respectively, Jake Epstein of Degrassi fame, and Scott J. Campbell); that said, vocally, they were more choirboy than speed- or smack-ingesting punks/slackers. Of the female cast members, Gabrielle McClinton as Whatsername especially caught the eye and ear.
It’s hard to fault the dancing or singing of any of the cast, though for a bunch of punks everybody was a mite too freshly scrubbed and wholesome-looking. The actual dance routines could have done with more pogoing, moshing or slam-dancing to be punk-credible, while the inclusion of Asian and black actors seemed a little token.
American Idiot favourites like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Know Your Enemy,” “Holiday” and the title track were all given strong renditions here, and an unreleased love song, “When It’s Time,” was also featured. The musical and lyrical banality of many of the other songs was apparent under the spotlight’s glare. Plenty of “lost dreams in the rain” stuff, while some of the ballads are as lame as those of hair metal bands. Scenes of returning Iraqi war veterans packed a bit more of a punch, reminding us that, on this album, Green Day was actually quite courageous in confronting the blind and oft-misguided patriotism of post 9/11 America.
When Green Day first broke through with 1994’s Dookie (15 million copies sold), no one could have anticipated the ‘generation spokesmen’ status American Idiot would achieve a decade later. It still rankles this lover of first-generation punk that this band has sold way more records than true pioneers like The Clash or The Ramones, but that’s clearly a minority view.
For an encore, the entire cast delivers a version of the non-Idiot-ic Green Day hit, “The Time of Your Life.” The evening may not have been mine, but it will likely be just that for Green Day fans not averse to a dash of squeaky-clean theatre.
Image courtesy of Doug Hamilton.