April 22, 2010 / 1:46 PM / 9 years ago

Green Day's American Idiot a tough sell on Broadway

Billy Joe Armstrong (C) of Green Day and the cast of "American Idiot" sing "21 Guns" at the 52nd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles January 31, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Blake

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - For all of the rock musicals that have appeared on Broadway in the decades since “Hair,” “American Idiot” comes the closest to providing a theatrical equivalent to the music of the moment.

This adaptation of Green Day’s critically acclaimed and huge-selling 2004 album stays pure to its inspiration, musically and aesthetically. But in terms of dramatic impact, it falls far short of predecessors like “The Who’s Tommy,” and it might prove a tough sell for audiences not predisposed to the band’s music. The marketing folks have their work cut out for them.

Showcased in a hit engagement at Berkeley Rep, the 95-minute show at the St. James Theater incorporates all of the titular album as well as selections from the band’s recent “21st Century Breakdown” and several other songs. The tenuous story line involves three main characters, all of them — you guessed it — disaffected suburban youth as they search for meaning in their lives.

For Johnny, the “Jesus of Suburbia,” the solution is to head to the big city, where he finds a girlfriend, Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones), but also falls prey to drug addiction at the hands of dealer St. Jimmy (Tony Vincent). Tunny (Stark Sands) takes the patriotic route, enlisting in the Army and sent to Iraq only to wind up with one of his legs blown off. He finds solace in the arms of his nurse, the Extraordinary Girl (Christina Sajous). Will (Michael Esper) stays behind, quickly finding himself struggling to support a wife (Mary Faber) and baby.

Although the original concept album is reasonably cohesive, it’s a thin premise on which to base a musical, and the show’s book, by the band’s Billie Joe Armstrong and director Michael Mayer, doesn’t manage to flesh it out sufficiently. Telling its story largely through music and movement with only a smattering of dialogue, “Idiot” never manages to make us care about the fate of its thinly drawn characters. Still, there’s a lot of passion onstage, and Mayer has provided the sort of propulsive staging that helps put the material over.

Performing on a set lined with newspaper pages and featuring dozens of television monitors blaring apocalyptic messages, the actors never stop moving. Whether dancing in the frenzied manner that one would find in a packed rock club or performing an elegant aerial ballet, the youthful ensemble goes through their nonstop paces with breathtaking energy.

The musical score reflects the band’s pop leanings, providing nicely melodic ballads to offset the harder-rocking material. Musical arranger Tom Kitt, a recent Pulitzer winner for his musical “Next to Normal,” has effectively fleshed out the orchestrations for the eight-piece onstage band without diluting the music’s raw power.

Gallagher, who has had experience with this sort of thing thanks to “Spring Awakening” (he also is a singer-songwriter), is impressively dynamic as Johnny. But he’s well-matched by everyone in the cast, which delivers such well-known songs as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “21 Guns” and the title tune with the requisite fervor.

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