New rock opera icon ‘American Idiot’ tours

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Gabrielle McClinton and Van Hughes in American Idiot (photo by Doug Hamilton).

Like the iconic staging of The Who’s album Tommy, a new generation’s voice is heard in bringing Green Day’s album American Idiot to the stage, with almost no dialogue to interfere with song after rocking song about the youth of today. Again, like Tommy, you don’t need to know the music to discover the story inherent in the music.

As teased together for the 2010 Broadway musical by co-writers, director Michael Mayer and Green Day’s lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, the compilations of songs (which include songs from their 2009 album and even unreleased songs) speak for themselves, and the punk, hard-rocking choreography by Steven Hoggett gives the songs the movement to tell the story.

From the opening bars of the title song, ‘American Idiot’ (“Don’t wanna be an American idiot, Don’t want a nation under new media”), the story unfolds of three young men, Johnny, Will and Tunny (Van Hughes, Jake Epstein and Scott J. Campbell)  who don’t want to be where they are, but don’t know what they should be heading to. We see them decide to hop a bus to the “big city” but suddenly, the trio is pulled apart by a pregnancy. Will’s girlfriend Heather (Leslie McDonel) sings plaintively, as she takes multiple pregnancy tests, hoping the answer will be different, then confronts Will as he leaves.

Will makes what could be the honorable choice to stay with her, but his resentment and churlish behavior doom their relationship. In the meantime, after aimlessly hanging out in the big city, Tunny gets fed up with the lifestyle and chooses to do something he finds aspirational: joining the armed services. Johnny is left with no focus, except perhaps to find love, and while he falls in lust with Whatshername (Gabrielle McClinton), he also falls in lust with drugs, as pusher St. Jimmy (Joshua Kobak) lures him in.

While the course of the diary-like, 90 minute musical doesn’t break any new ground (the relationship with the baby fails, the soldier gets wounded and loses a leg, the drug-addict finally wants to come home and start over), the music is a solid storyline with beginning, middle and end. This elevates the musical to one that appeals to more than just Green Day fans, just young people figuring out their futures, and allows adults of any age to connect to the music and understand the emotions.

It’s much more clear, from seeing it, why the musical felt revolutionary to those who attended it on Broadway, and what can draw crowds to see it on tour. It’s also clear that the ensemble of young singer/dancers in the touring show are exciting and passionate and transmit their excitement in what they are doing with every toss of hair and raised middle finger (and there are a lot of those middle fingers and quite a few swear words, in case you need to know that).

They are young and like the cast of Hair in their age, they are speaking to their generation.

The tour is in Seattle until Sunday, June 10, and goes to San Francisco from June 12 through July 8. For tickets, go to stgpresents.org, tickets.com or call 877-STG-4TIX (784-4849). The Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco has tickets here.

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