American Idiot has something of a built-in audience. The Green Day superfan sitting next to me made that clear. He chugged a Coke and eagerly ranked the songs in the show for his mother before the play even started, declaring between a string of percussive belches that "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)," the closing number, is the greatest song. In an unsettling twist, he and I were wearing the same outfit: T-shirt, a black hoodie, jeans and cheap sneakers. We both looked like understudies for the show, although my advanced age was clearly a giveaway.
American Idiot is a show about youth and raging against a world you live in but aren't old enough to shape. The three stars are young men in their early twenties who try to navigate their way to adulthood in the aftermath of 9/11. (The show opens with George W. Bush projected on the back wall, talking about America's resolve to punish the people who took down the World Trade Center.) Johnny (Evan Fornachon), Will (Brendan Ochs) and Tunny (Frederick Rice) are slacker punks bored with their suburban lives who dream of striking out into the world to find something new and exciting. New York is where they'll find these thrills, but Will has to drop out when his girlfriend Heather (Larissa White) tells him she's pregnant. This first crack in the guys' friendship is followed by another when Tunny joins the army. Left on his own in a strange city, Johnny starts a shallow relationship with Whatsername (Sarah Porter) and dabbles in drugs.
All of this is told in one loud blast of songs, with minimal dialogue, which has its benefits and drawbacks. The New Line Band rocks the shit out of the music, particularly guitarists D. Mike Bauer and Aaron Doerr (Doerr pogos to incredible height when he really gets cranking). Directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy went with a narrow stage and a deep riser for the audience, more in line with a rock show than a play. The result is a close, sweaty show that feels alive at all times.
That shallow stage makes it difficult to see much of what happens on the wings, which is where Will and Tunny's stories play out. I could only see the top of Will and Heather's heads while they argued about his withdrawal from his new family.
But the plot is mostly allegorical anyway. With only the lyrics to tell the balance of the story, Dowdy and Miller's inventive staging carries a great deal of the narrative weight. Tunny is sent overseas to fight and is seriously injured. In his stateside hospital bed, he sings "Extraordinary Girl" with Extraordinary Girl (Sicily Mathenia), who is dressed like the Statue of Liberty. "She's all alone again/Wiping the tears from her eyes/Some days he feels like dying/She gets so sick of crying" they sing before embracing, turning it into a song about patriotism, the price soldiers pay in war and how a nation bears that cost. By the end of the song, Extraordinary Girl is tapping other wounded soldiers on the shoulder, ushering them off the stage. It's an image that is simple and profound, made more beautiful by Rice and Mathenia's performances.
American Idiot is full of these small moments that expand the show beyond a "Green Day jukebox musical." Which was a relief, because I'm more of a Descendents fan myself. But I would argue with my superfan seatmate about "the greatest song." It's clearly "Letterbomb," which Sarah Porter — joined by the rest of the ladies in the cast — sang as if her life depended upon it. "It's not over 'till you're underground" is a rallying cry for life, and proof that women get stuff done while men wallow in their bad decisions.