TheaterMania Logo

American Idiot

The Hypocrites rock out with Green Day's concept-album-turned-musical.

Malic White (St. Jimmy) with the cast/band of American Idiot, directed by Steve Wilson, at the Den Theatre in Chicago.
(© Evan Hanover)

There's little argument as to the sonic power of neo-punk rock band Green Day's 2004 album American Idiot. The record is charged with pile-driving rock and roll and haunting lyrics. It's also an excellent foundation for a musical, as was proved by the provocative 2010 Broadway show about three disaffected young men looking for meaning in a world of malls, anonymous sex, senseless violence, and addiction.

American Idiot the musical has more in common with the biopic Sid and Nancy than with Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma. But its rebellious, scruffy spirit is a perfect match for the Hypocrites' aesthetic. With director Steve Wilson at the helm of the show's regional premiere, American Idiot delivers plenty of amped-up sound and fury.

Featuring a cast that doubles as a band, the production is laudably ambitious. But ultimately, the musical offers little in terms of coherent storytelling. The sung-through show (music by Green Day, lyrics by the band's front man Billie Joe Armstrong, and book by Armstrong and Michael Mayer) loses its power when the sound is so murky that the lyrics become unintelligible. It's tough to say whether the problem lies with Rick Sims' sound design or the acoustics in the Den Theatre where the Hypocrites have set up shop for the season. Either way, the result is a story that's inaudible even when the music is set on blast.

The story centers around Johnny (Luke Linsteadt), the grandiose self-proclaimed "Jesus of Suburbia." He's unhappy with his life of convenience store beer runs and getting stoned in his parents' basement, so he and pals Tunny (Steven Perkins) and Will (Jay W. Cullen) decide to set out for the city. Will winds up staying home because his girlfriend is pregnant. Tunny winds up in the military, and loses a leg fighting in an unspecified war. Johnny finds heroin, loses himself, and ultimately faces the fact that even in the big city, he can't escape his own internal sense of purposelessness.

Tales of disaffected angry young men are nothing new. But where the angry kids of the late 1960s through the mid-1970s carried on crusades for civil rights or against wars, the young men of American Idiot don't seem to stand for — or against — anything. That is also a problem in American Idiot. Beyond deep disgust with the suburbs, Will, Johnny, and Tunny don't believe in anything. They seem to be angry for the sake of being angry, and that makes them difficult to empathize with.

The combination of self-centeredness and nihilism causes the trio to seem more like spoiled children than like young men on a quest for meaning. When the lyrics become unintelligible, their character actions and choreography (by Katie Spelman) become nothing more than a series of over-the-top grimaces and stomping feet – they are toddlers so immersed in the rage of their tantrums that they completely forget why they were so upset in the first place.

Costume designer Mieka van der Ploeg has outfitted the cast in black and red, with ripped fishnets, schoolgirl plaid micro minis, studded dog collars, and distressed jackets emblazoned with words like "Vigilantes" and "Fury." It's pure punk, complete with the sky-high, neon-hued Mohawk sported by the drug dealer St. Jimmy (Malic White, cutting a ferociously androgynous figure that evokes the antics of Miley Cyrus' ever-protuding tongue and Iggy Pop's sinewy, rage-fueled athleticism). Scenic designer Joe Schermoly sets the production in a space that has a raw, industrial feel, flanking the stage with towers that the cast scampers up and down throughout the show. The band is upstage, with members of the ensemble ducking in and out as they take turns on percussion, keyboards, and a passel of electric guitars and basses.

It's only when that band unplugs that American Idiot provides characters you can invest in and a narrative that you can feel as well as follow. Music director Andra Velis Simon serves up sheer emotion in "Wake Me Up When September Ends," "21 Guns," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "Novacaine," and "Whatsername." Elisa Carlson's violin solos are indescribably beautiful as are the a cappella moments when the ensemble's seamless harmonies soar through the air like ether. This is especially resonant when Alex Madda, who plays Will's pregnant girlfriend, Heather (Alex Madda), showcases her rich, velvet alto, lending a moment of startlingly purity. And when the show's primary antihero, Johnny, is alone with his guitar onstage, the sound is transcendent.

American Idiot tells a story that's violent and graphic and filled with harsh beauty. But that story is only angry babble for much of the Hypocrites production. Ear-splittting volume can be glorious, cathartic and transcendent. Here, it's merely frustrating.