Review: Green Day’s American Idiot (Dancap)

Scott J. Campbell, Van Hughes and Jake Epstein in AMERICAN IDIOT (Photo by Doug Hamilton)

Dancap presents the premiere of the North American Broadway Tour of Green Day’s American Idiot at the Toronto Centre for the Arts through January 15, 2012.

I came of age in the ‘90s as part of that disaffected sandwich generation between Gen X and the Millennials. Green Day was definitely a part of the soundtrack of my youth. Their 1994 breakout album Dookie was a monster and I remember watching the music videos for their string of hit songs on MuchMusic (back then, they still aired music videos).

Green Day was actually my first rock concert. It was 1995 and they were playing the Ottawa Civic Centre; my friends and I got seats in the nosebleeds and afterward my dad picked us up in the parking lot of the KFC on Bank Street to drive us back home to the suburbs.

Later that year I also saw my first rock opera; the Des McAnuff-directed Canadian production of The Who’s Tommy. I remember sitting in the audience surrounded by aging Boomers re-living the music of their youth. Last night, as I sat in the audience for Green Day’s Broadway musical, American Idiot, I had the unsettling realization that I had come full circle. Well, sort of…

American Idiot isn’t a jukebox musical of Green Day’s greatest hits, it’s based on the band’s 2004 concept album of the same title. At the time of album release, 9/11 was still fresh in the American psyche; the fear, paranoia and mass hysteria had reached a fever pitch and the US was deep in the throes of its misdirected retaliatory invasion of Iraq.

Meanwhile, on the home front, a new generation of disaffected youth was coming of age in the characterless monotony of America’s suburbs and longing to experience something authentic. True to Green Day’s punk influences, American Idiot captures the zeitgeist for a generation of youth while raging against authority and attempting legitimate social commentary.

American Idiot tells the story of three suburban youths; Will (Jake Epstein), Tunny (Scott J. Campbell), and Johnny (Van Hughes) who rage against their mind-numbing suburban existence and decide to escape from the sterility of suburbia to live their lives in the big city.

Will never makes it, he stays behind for his pregnant girlfriend, Heather (Leslie McDonel), Tunny is equally disaffected in the city, joins the Army and gets shipped off to fight in Iraq and Johnny is torn between a new girl, Whatsername (Gabrielle McClinton) and a growing drug addiction embodied by the character St. Jimmy (Joshua Kobak).

The music is written by Green Day with lyrics by lead singer Billy Joe Armstrong who also co-wrote the book. All of the songs from the American Idiot album are featured and musical director Tom Kitt’s arrangements really draw out the inherent theatricality of Green Day’s music; the songs keep their rock edge and sound glorious performed by the ensemble cast.

Clocking in at 90 intermissionless minutes, the show is a high-octane rock spectacle. The young cast performs the material with conviction, they radiate energy to the rafters and their enthusiasm is absolutely infectious.

Stylistically, the show owes a lot to the recent crop of hit rock musicals on Broadway; it’s reminiscent of Rent, Spring Awakening, and Next to Normal. I thought the show’s design elements were brilliantly executed; the dynamic projections accentuate and complete the look of the multi-tiered, vaguely post-industrial set and the energetic, punk-inspired choreography, with a lot of thrashing and head-banging, completes the imagery.

The story is told interpretively, in broad strokes through the song lyrics. The characters don’t literally sing about what they’re doing and there’s no back and forth sung dialogue. Instead, the show borrows from the convention of music videos where the lyrics metaphorically tell the story though the actors do literally act out the plot on stage.

For the most part I thought the style worked really well however, my theatre-going companion and fellow Mooney writer Samantha felt the show could have used more character development, maybe with more scripted dialogue in between the songs. I get that the characters are archetypes but I think it would have helped us to buy in to the show a bit more if they were more fully fleshed out.

The show definitely has great crossover appeal, especially to a certain demographic who grew up as fans of Green Day. I have a lot of friends around my age who aren’t necessarily interested in theatre but when I told them I was going to see American Idiot they perked up and told me they had heard of it and were interested in seeing it.

And see it they should, American Idiot rocks! If you’re a Green Day fan or enjoy shows like Rent or Spring Awakening there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy American Idiot. Kudos to Dancap for presenting a show that’s a little outside the box.

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  • Scott J. Campbell, Van Hughes and Jake Epstein in AMERICAN IDIOT (Photo by Doug Hamilton)

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