“American Idiot,” the 2010 Broadway hit musical — the first punk rock opera, really — now at the Hippodrome, paints a searing portrait of restless, reckless youth, with all the sex, drugs and violence you’d expect from a disaffected generation.
That the show also manages to be entertaining and exhilarating just bumps up the cool factor, which is already considerable, given that the music is by the popular band Green Day and drawn from the 2004 album “American Idiot.”
Front man Billie Joe Armstrong collaborated on the book with Maryland native Michael Mayer, who directs the production with the same dynamic touch he brought to another hit musical about young angst, “Spring Awakening.”
The unfocused “kids of war and peace” in “American Idiot,” kids who are “born and raised by hypocrites,” can’t stand the make-believe world of suburbia where they feel trapped. They’re determined to get to the big city, even if they have no idea what to do there or where their lives ought to be headed.
These guys don’t need reasons, goals, commitments. They just need something new. Their motto: “I don’t care if you don’t care.”
We’ve seen these types before. They’re descendants of the cause-less rebels from 1950s movies and the perennial protesters of the ’60s. They’re just a little more abrasive. And louder.
“American Idiot” crackles with energy from the moment the curtain rises on Christine Jones’ striking set, dominated by a menacing wall pocked with TV monitors (video/projection designer Darrell Maloney’s contributions provide a clever, often subtle touch throughout).
With little spoken dialogue, the show is propelled by two dozen or so songs that, in the space of 90 minutes, manage to trace a clear narrative.
At the center of the action is Johnny (Alex Nee), who plans to break out of the rut with his two buddies. Will (Casey O’Farrell) is gung ho, but his girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy causes him to back out — not that he is going to turn responsible and sensitive all of a sudden.
That leaves Tunny (Dustin Harris Smith), who joins Johnny only to end up more unfocused than he was before. Tunny’s urban adventure consists of overusing a TV remote. This being the post-9/11 Bush era, fierce patriotism is in the airwaves, and Tunny is swept up by a promotion for military service.
That leaves Johnny free to focus on finding a soul mate, or at least a bed mate. He finds her (Alyssa DiPalma), but also ends up under the spell of another companion, real or imagined, named St. Jimmy, the drug pusher from hell.
All of this may sound like a bad movie plot, or a freaky, updated version of those don’t-let-this-happen-to-you public information films that used to be shown to kids. But there is a touch of brilliance in how the creators make “American Idiot” hit fresh notes as it drives home the sobering truth that, as the song “Wake Me Up When September Ends” has it, “the innocent can never last.”
Johnny loses his way, if not his anger. Tunny has lost even more by the time he returns from the war. Back home — “American Idiot” is, in the end, a moral about how you can go home again, just not as the same person — the old frustrations await, but maybe, just maybe, even the defeated Johnny will find a way to amount to something.
The national touring cast could not be more kinetic if it tried. The singing voices are on the generic side, pretty much interchangeable, but each soloist has what it takes to plunge all the way into the music and the intense, if repetitive, head-banging, fist-pumping, torso-thrashing choreography (by Steven Hoggett).
Johnny’s character — all the characters, for that matter — may be drawn in broad strokes, but Nee manages to fill in a good deal of detail. He’s all too real and chilling in the drug scenes, at one point entwined with his girlfriend by tourniquets used for shooting heroin, suggesting a grotesque variation on umbilical cords.
Nee is just as adept at the occasional deadpan humor, particularly when Johnny boasts of knocking off a convenience store to get bus fare, only to work his way gradually to the image-deflating truth.
The musical high points include Nee’s tender account of “When It’s Time”; the eloquently phrased counterpoint sung by Smith and three others at the start of “Before the Lobotomy”; and a searing performance of the angry anti-war anthem “21 Guns” (borrowed from Green Day’s 2009 album “21st Century Breakdown”).
The show’s tight band, led from the keyboard by Evan Jay Newman, punches and purrs as required. Theatrical flashes in the staging, including a surprisingly effective bit of aerial ballet, are likewise tight.
There’s an inspired ending to “American Idiot,” with a solo cello providing the perfect, plaintive coda to all of the stress that comes before. But, like some other musicals of late, this one tacks on a more upbeat postscript in the form of a group sing after the curtain goes back up. The first ending is a lot more fitting, a lot more telling.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun