The touring “American Idiot” kicks ass in every sense. Michael Mayer’s staging of Green Day’s landmark concept album delivers a pointed boot to the rump of a nation self-medicating to the point of insensibility. More swats are aimed at Gen-X, which ought to be fighting back but instead wallows in its own cynical narcolepsy. At the same time, the production is a dazzling eyeful and a thrilling earful, taking full advantage of theater’s unique power to summon up spectacle and surprise. This blissful extravaganza makes you think even as it knocks you out.
All manner of drug abuse is played out here, starting with the 32 floor-to-ceiling video monitors peppering Christine Jones’ upstage wall with an orgy of CNN bulletins and self-help infomercials. Chugging and puffing below are the three hometown buddies whose journeys we’ll follow: Johnny (Van Hughes), self-styled “Jesus of Suburbia” and aspiring rockstar; Tunny (Scott J. Campbell), hypnotized into enlistment and posting to Iraq; and Will (Jake Epstein), who impregnates girlfriend Heather (Leslie McDonel) to sink, bong in hand, deeper into the sofa. (Personal anthem: “Give Me Novocaine.”)
Johnny and Tunny each get hooked on hard stuff — whether peddled on the street or administered via IV in a Medevac — in poignant, detailed narratives plucked by Mayer and Billie Joe Armstrong out of the Green Day oeuvre, and easy to follow even when the lyrics are tough to make out (which, truth be told, is much of the time).
With the story made so clear, we’re readily pulled along with the characters’ alternating excitement and despair. You can admire Green Day’s extraordinary musicianship (retooled by the gifted Tom Kitt of “Next to Normal”) even as you shudder at the characters’ willful waste of so much talent and energy.
The cast has both traits to spare. Most came up from the ensemble and understudy ranks during the undeservedly brief Gotham run and are now clearly psyched to take center stage. Hughes is a less raw protagonist than original thesp John Gallagher Jr., but his babyface and superior guitar skills make this Johnny’s decline that much sadder. And with the stunning Gabrielle McClinton as heartbreaker g.f. “Whatsername,” he’s got every reason to walk down the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” — one of a dozen superb numbers in the score.
Only Joshua Kobak’s drug pusher St. Jimmy may be more Studio 54 than Avenue A, less terrifying than was originally intended. (Armstrong himself took over the part on Broadway to goose sales, a tough act to follow.) But Kobak’s showbiz pizzazz does manage to highlight narcotics’ genuine appeal, a fact too often overlooked by moralists wagging fingers. And those who felt Kevin Adams reached a career pinnacle lighting “Spring Awakening” may find he has outdone himself in sculpting the joys and mysteries of urban, suburban and desert landscapes.
In a way “American Idiot” can be seen as a companion piece to that earlier hit, also helmed by Mayer. It’s as if those dopey, restless German kids — who end their “Spring” piece singing hopefully of “Purple Summer” — have fast-forwarded a century to encounter no more opportunity for fulfillment or comfort. So the autumn arrives and they plaintively beg “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” Will young people ever experience their happy new year? According to Green Day, the jury’s still out.