Rock has been a component of Broadway musicals for decades, but seldom do stage shows actually reflect contemporary music with as much verve and authenticity as the rock opera American Idiot. That’s why Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong, now appearing as the drug dealer St. Jimmy for 50 performances (through Feb. 27), seems so much at home in the show based on his band’s hit 2004 album.
Armstrong provides an added spike of punk energy and rock-star charisma without ever upstaging the talented cast or upsetting the balance of the show’s admittedly bare-bones story. To his credit, he gives an actual performance too — hits his marks, emotes, and even nails Steven Hoggett’s athletic and muscular choreography. (The production is still grounded in a punk milieu: no jazz hands here.) Armstrong’s biggest contribution to the success of American Idiot, though, may be in the score, one of the best on Broadway right now. American Idiot is chock-full of terrific melodies and stirringly narrative lyrics, which have been smartly adapted by composer-orchestrator Tom Kitt for the 24-person ensemble. Is it too much to hope that Armstrong and his band mates might one day write a musical expressly for the stage?
It’s true that this is not a traditional book musical, as my colleague Leah Greenblatt noted in her original EW review of American Idiot. There is minimal dialogue between numbers, and we get only the sketchiest plot outline about three young guys who long to escape their upbringing in George W. Bush-era American suburbia. Johnny (appealing Everyman John Gallagher Jr.) and Tunny (a soulful Stark Sands) take off for the big city, where Johnny gets lured into drugs while Tunny is drawn to enlist and heads off to the Middle East. Meanwhile, Will (Michael Esper, the weakest singer at the performance I attended) stays at home when his girlfriend gets pregnant.
But if the characters are archetypes, and the incidents that happen to them are mostly conventional and unsurprising, they are nonetheless both recognizable and relatable. And the lead performers maintain a human scale even amid the impressive spectacle of Christine Jones’ Tony-winning scenic design (filled with projections, embedded videos, and acrobatic elements) and Kevin Adams’ Tony-winning lighting design. Like the best rock concerts, American Idiot is a treat for the eyes as well as the ears. B+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)