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Theater Review (Baltimore, MD): American Idiot

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American Idiot Musical in Baltimore
The company of AMERICAN IDIOT (Photo by Litwin)

In 2004, Green Day released one of its most popular and influential albums, the Grammy-winning American Idiot. In 2010 a Broadway musical was launched, a combination of two albums, American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown.

Green Day’s lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer (who also directed) wrote the musical’s book. The two-time Tony Award-winning show has now hit the road and pulled into Baltimore’s beautiful Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

When I saw the original show in 2010, my initial reaction was that it was desperately trying to recapture the 20-something angst of Rent but lacked that show’s soul. This time, the show works: probably because, while I didn’t like the original show, it has one of the best Broadway cast albums in years. I listen to it religiously.

 


Casey O’Farrell (Will) in AMERICAN IDIOT (Photo by John Daughtry)

 

That made it easier this time to just go with the flow of the music and ignore the emptiness of the show’s primary story. Even the latter had more of an emotional punch this time around. I’m still not convinced this is a good Broadway show, but as a straight-ahead, crowd-pleasing, toe-tapping, throw-your-hands-in-the-air rock concert it works amazingly well.

The story, such as it is, centers around three 20-something friends, the always-angry Johnny (Alex Nee) and slackers Will (Casey O’Farrell) and Tunny (Understudy Dustin Harris Smith took over the role for this performance). We follow nearly a year in their lives, but primarily the spring and summer.

Due to Will’s girlfriend being pregnant he stays home while Johnny and Tunny head for the big city. They don’t seem to have any hopes and dreams beyond just getting out of the suburbs. Tunny quickly grows tired of being lazy and listless so he joins the military. In the city Johnny falls prey to the glammed up drug dealer St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders).

 


Alex Nee (Johnny) and Trent Saunders (St. Jimmy) in AMERICAN IDIOT (Photo by John Daughtry)

 

I love how this production is directed, and the set design. All three stories occur virtually simultaneously on one cluttered stage that includes simple things like a couch, a bed, and lots of stepladders all set against a wall of video screens. Like Rock of Ages, there is no traditional orchestra; all the music is performed live onstage by a live band. For good or ill, all the strobe lighting effects add to kinetic atmosphere.

The show has numerous moments of weirdness. During a rousing version of “Jesus of Suburbia,” an angry rock mini-opera about disaffected suburban kids, the video wall flashes anti-establishment videos including shots of Dick Cheney, news reports, and a hysterical quick shot of George W. Bush literally sucking blood out of the Statue of Liberty. Yes, this is that type of party.

In many ways I prefer the choral arrangements of these tracks to the original versions. They are full and richly realized on the stage. Highlights include a rousing opening theme song (“American Idiot,” a gorgeous version of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and the heartbreaking “Last Night On Earth.”

 


The company of AMERICAN IDIOT (Photo by John Daughtry)

 

All the leads do a fantastic job on these classic songs. The two understudies, Dustin Harris Smith and Alison Morooney, are awesome. It’s really funny to note, but by the end of the show all three leads end up looking like the three members of Green Day.

Olivier Award-winning choreographer Steven Hoggett does an amazing job with this production. Everyone just rocks on stage. There is an amazing sequence where we see Tunny and his fellow soldiers in a war zone while there are numerous other things going on on stage.

The problem was in some of the pacing, because this was more of a rock concert than a traditional show. Some of the more powerful moments like the anthem “21 Guns” didn’t give the audience time to decompress or applaud loudly, instead that number just launched directly into “Letterbomb.” “Wake Me Up When September Ends” was gorgeous, lyrical, and would have been a perfect way to end this show.

Don’t leave before the final curtain call because the entire cast gets to close out by having a little fun on guitars doing an amazing acoustic and crowd-pleasing “Good Riddance.” Run don’t walk to see this.

American Idiot has a very limited one-week run from May 7 – 12. Tickets are $25 – $110.

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