Although it contains songs from several Green Day albums, “American Idiot,” the musical theatre production now playing at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday, March 3, is anything but a jukebox musical.
Instead, it’s a book musical that tells the story of three young slackers adrift in the early 2000’s, as opportunities for young people began to dry up and America headed in exorably toward war in the mid-East. The Green Day trio of Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool attempted to capture the angst and anxiety of this “lost” generation in their 2004 album “American Idiot” which connected with a broad swath of punk-rock fans and cemented the band’s reputation as superstars. As products of the Bay Area music scene, the guys were on the cutting edge of musical innovation and acutely aware of what was starting to interest their young fans. “American Idiot” became a cultural phenomenon and, with its thematic unity, seemed a natural for a stage adaptation.
This touring edition retains all the qualities that made it a success on Broadway, from the addition of Green Day standards from their Grammy winning 2009 juggernaut “21st Century Breakdown” to director Michael Mayer’s anarchic and energetic staging which mixed the frenetic energy of a rock concert with the requirements of telling a cogent, moving story that allows an audience to identify with its trio of antiheroes.
Yes, the show is loud, but this is a rock musical after all and that comes with the territory. The main problem is that the on stage musicians, particularly the percussionist, tend to drown out the singers, making it difficult to catch much of Green Day’s lyrics, unless of course you’re a Green Day fan and know most of the music by heart. Fortunately director Mayer, who may have experienced similar issues with the Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater rocker, “Spring Awakening,” stages the work clearly and cogently, so that the plot is quite easy to follow through the actions and expressions of the singers on stage. Plus, as Mayer and Armstrong developed the book for the musical, they indeed had to sandwich some of the songs into the plot where they needed some of the director’s finesse and some alterations by Armstrong to fulfill the needs of the plot.
Even those who have not followed Green Day closely will recognize a number of the songs in this intermissionless production, including such Top 40 hits as “21 Guns,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and the rollicking title tune which opens the show. The production demonstrates that Green Day is equally adept at writing expressive ballads as much as unrelenting rock numbers and Mayer gives each of these ballads their proper due showcasing their beauty.
Christine Jones’ set seems nearly identical to the one she created for the New York production, with at least 50 video monitors scattered willy-nilly up and down the metallic floor to ceiling back drop, which resembles a post-industrial warehouse. The monitors constantly provide a video counterpart to the action on stage, frequently with news reports from the early ‘aughts featuring a war-mongering George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, as well as clips from many of the mindless television programs of the period. Darrel Maloney’s video and projections are essential to the spirit of this production, although I recall that the Broadway version seemed to have more projections spread upon the back wall which added to the chaotic feel of the endeavor.
The plot, designed to be in service to Green Day’s cynical and ironic outcries, focuses on aimless friends Johnny, Will and Tunney, who, frustrated by their meaningless lives in the fictional Jingletown, USA, decide to take off for greener pastures to discover themselves and find some worthwhile pursuits to follow. Armed with their guitars and back-packs, the trio barely get to the edge of town before Will decides to stay behind with his now-pregnant girl friend.
With just two now reaching the Big City, Tunney’s depression makes him susceptible to a confident military recruiter who quickly sends the young hunk off to the mid-East. Meanwhile, Johnny falls in with the devious, tempting St. Jimmy, the avatar of all things drug and deadly, who leads the aspiring singer-songwriter into multiple addictions and a casual relationship with a girl known only as Whatsername. Back home, Will’s resentment toward his girlfriend and baby and willingness to plant himself permanently on his couch with his weed-loving pals only adds to his malaise.
In a staging decision that vastly helps the audience follow the story, Mayer has each of the three main characters occupy a specific area of the stage throughout the evening, center for Johnny, left or right for the others, providing helpful cues to the progress of events
The slender, charismatic Alex Nee anchors the evening as Johnny, with a powerful rock voice that ably handles the softer, more cerebral requirements of the show’s ballads. He resembles Billie Jo Armstrong not only in compact size but down to the circles of dark make-up that accentuate his eyes. Thomas Hettrick is fine and touching as the unlucky Tunney who’s seriously wounded virtually upon his arrival in the war zone and whose slow, difficult recovery is always in doubt. Casey O’Farrell is believably lost and frustrated as the sofa-bound Will whose slow progression into drug abuse and isolation is painstakingly recorded through silent yet steady actions, frequently in dim light, on his side of the stage.
Trent Saunders is appropriately taunting and threatening as St. Jimmy, jumping and cavorting in and out of the action, as he tries to draw Jimmy deeper and deeper into a dark world. The female characters are not developed especially well, allowing none to make any significant impression, particularly since they carry such anonymous monikers as the previously-mentioned “Whatsername” and ”the Extraordinary Girl,” who does get to soar with Tunney in a yearnful dream sequence.
Choreographer Steven Hoggett inserts dance into the proceedings whenever he can, which helps to keep the visual aspects of the show exciting and interesting the entire time. As a movement specialist, Hoggett integrates the dances with a variety of swooping hand motions and slow, invigorating crawls and turns that provide a welcome edginess to the proceedings.
Andrea Lauer’s costumes run the gamut from sweatshirts, hoodies, t-shirts. loose blouses and jeans to collections of hot leather and flashy nightclub attire. She is particularly clever with her military fatigues, using the merest suggestion of a brown curve on khaki to successfully convey the outfits. Kevin Adams has created lighting effects that never seem to stop, blasting brightly for desert firefights or cool and pensive for the more intimate ballads. Brian Ronan’s sound design could use better balance to assure that the lyrics would not be overwhelmed by Tom Kitt’s arrangements and orchestrations.
Although “American Idiot” is part of the Bushnell Broadway Series subscription, the production seemed to attract a far-younger crowd than is typical for the series, who seemed delighted and enthusiastic about the evening. It’s nice to see theater expanding its traditional boundaries that encourage new audiences to enjoy the experience of live theater.
For information and tickets, contact the Bushnell box office at 860.987.5900 or visit the website at www.bushnell.org. The Bushnell box office is located at 166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford.