American Idiot Peabody Opera House March 2, 2012
The average age of the attendees of American Idiot's opening night at the Peabody Opera House hovered around the mid fifties, neither the target demographic for the music of Green Day nor that of a contemporary musical with a 1:4 ratio of choreographed masturbation gestures to utterances of "fuck." Strange crowd indeed (less strange if you consider the financial stability required to shell out $70+ for a primo seat), but the musical is not about the band that wrote its songs or the album that lends its name; nobody need know much about Green Day to appreciate or understand the performance. It's Broadway; the concept is spectacle. It is important to remember that American Idiot came from the perspective of the stage, adapting the album to the needs of the show, not vice versa, because for those who grew up on a steady diet of Dookie, the idea of a Green Day musical is insane. In reality, American Idiot is very much like 2001: A Space Odyssey or the Flaming Lips or the original Japanese run of Iron Chef; it doesn't completely make sense until you actually see it.
The plot of American Idiot is something about three friends who go their separate ways in search of significance. One to New York to become a junkie, one to the military to become an amputee, and one stays home and starts a family - seemingly not by choice, as he seems bummed when his girlfriend waddles on stage with a pregnant belly under her Cardinals shirt (nice play, guys). Or, uh, something like that, because the real plot is the songs from Green Day's 2004 album in chronological order - plus a few selections from 21st Century Breakdown to fill out the running time. The flimsy threads that connect the dots are hardly significant, hence the minuscule amount of dialogue. Some of the most interesting parts between songs - like the nonchalant bong rips in the background - felt partly like distractions.
The musical numbers are lavish, as expected, with a unique sense of motion and space. A staircase on wheels is an essential prop, leading to some nailbiting quasi-stunts. Some of the characters came off as parodies, but the costume design and choreography tastefully nodded to the punk aesthetic, including a Misfits hoodie and moves that referenced hardcore moshing.
A seven-ish piece band (some members hid too well in the set) recreated the songs accurately and the on stage action enhanced each tune's essence. "Holiday" was all snotty bedroom revolution, ironic Nazi salutes and soap-boxing. Inversely, the sap was amplified in some of the more dramatic tracks - "Boulevard Of Broken Dreams" came off as particularly pathetic, but not as much as its stillborn sibling "21 Guns."
American Idiot found a way to pay homage to Green Day in more subtle fashions. The main character (New York junkie guy) was definitely singer Billie Joe Armstrong. The heroin allegory character St. Jimmy was drummer Tre Cool combined, oddly, with Marilyn Manson. The domestic fellow had a Mike Dirnt vibe - also, his couch referenced the band's iconic "Longview" video. The military character was a necessary addition to make the album's political ramblings relevant, but the actor was the least convincing rocker. This was taken care of, in part, by a temporary Black Flag tattoo and a makeshift Bad Brains sticker on his guitar, overt gestures for punk credibility, which may have made his character representative of the entire Insomniac album. The three main characters lead the action, but the ladies of the cast perform well in the spotlight. Unfortunately, their breaks usually come as justified, fed-up outbursts against the leads that reinforce how detestable these guys are.
By the end of American Idiot, the boys are back in town for the first time since the end. Hugs and high fives, but no resolution. The moral of the story seems to be that life sucks. If you follow your dream, you become an addict. If you defend your country, you lose a leg. If you have a kid, you're stagnating. The source material does not offer any solutions - it's all complaints and questions with no answers in sight; we are only given an unsolicited encore of "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)," the official theme song of closure, alluding to a tidy ending. But there's something satisfying about seeing every member of the cast on stage, each one with an acoustic guitar, each one strumming G-C(add9)-D in adequate unison. Like the rest of American Idiot it is enjoyable; you just might have to switch your brain to standby for an hour and a half.
Notes are on the next page. Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias: My Green Day experiences include, but are not limited to, playing bass in "Nice Guys Finish Last: A Tribute To Green Day" and constantly teaching kids how to play "When I Come Around" and "Boulevard Of Broken Dreams" on guitar. Knowing the inner workings of the band's songs aids in the appreciation of American Idiot, as there are some clever cues and thoughtful arrangements throughout.
Overheard: "Oh, I know this song!" by the 60+ year old woman sitting next to me after the rendition of "Wake Me Up When September Ends." Random Detail: Much of the dancing involved this weird amalgam of headbanging and cro-magnum knuckle dragging, made especially odd because nobody who did this motion had long enough hair.
By The Way: I am not an age-ist.