L.A. is a pretty rock & roll town, so it’s only fitting for the crowd at a rock & roll musical to fit the part. Unlike most stodgy Broadway venues, the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown L.A. was packed with quite a few headbanded, spiky-haired, goth-inspired punk-rock enthusiasts for the opening of Green Day’s rock opera American Idiot (playing in L.A. through April 22 as part of the show’s national tour). Despite a cast of solid singers and musicians, the L.A. version lacks the spontaneity of the original 2009 New York production, which often featured well-known rock stars and Broadway vets. But the touring company holds its own and sticks to the script, carrying us through 90 minutes of rock ballads, strobe lights, and worn-through T-shirts.
Based on Green Day’s 2004 concept album, American Idiot speaks to antiwar sentiment, drug addiction, political apathy, and the overall disconnection of suburban youth — themes that make for a solid rock opera, as we’ve seen many times before (Hair and Rent being the most obvious comparisons). But American Idiot, adapted by Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and director and co-writer Michael Mayer, has more in common with the Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia than more traditional Broadway musicals. The simplistic plot (a friend gets pregnant, a friend joins the Army, a friend becomes a drug addict) builds on itself with both linear and nonlinear storytelling devices, including dream sequences (acrobatics included). The creative lighting and open stage design allow the cast to move seamlessly from suburban house to dirty bus station to club bathroom to fire escape. Scaffolding and monitors and the band become props, giving the show a gritty overtone. Combined with dozens of TV monitors that verge on Max Headroom ubiquity, the sparse stage allows you to see the action at all times without being overly distracted.
The male-dominated cast include some real standouts, particularly the talented Van Hughes as ne’er-do-well Johnny, a stoner-turned-heroin junkie who leaves home to start a band in the big city, and a solid Scott J. Campbell as the doe-eyed Army enlistee Tunny. Joshua Kobak makes quite an impression playing St. Jimmy, the thinly veiled incarnation of heroin itself, as a creepy, pale Marilyn Manson type.
Since the show centers on three male buddies, perhaps it’s not surprising that the show’s women seem like accessories. Leslie McDonel, as Heather, the pregnant girlfriend of stay-at-home Will (Jake Epstein), is the rare standout in carrying the hard-rock tone of the piece. Unfortunately, the band overpowers the vocals of Gabrielle McClinton as Whatshername, Johnny’s girlfriend.
American Idiot is at times shocking and earnest in its adherence to the album and its stark depiction of suburban life, but at others it doesn’t go far enough and can feel dated — where’s the outrage about war and the anger that punk rock is supposed to represent? It’s a fun ride through a great album that anyone who’s hated their parents or wanted a different life can identify with, but don’t expect to walk out wanting to change the world. B?
(Tickets and tour info: AmericanIdiotTheMusical.com)