Green Day’s American Idiot absolutely belongs on Broadway. The punk label always seemed somewhat disingenuous for this band, now 23 years old, that is cleaner, shinier, and more sentimental than punk would ever want to be. And Green Day’s songs, with Billie Joe Armstrong’s lyrics, have unnervingly infectious hooks, harmonies, and major chords to match the best of recent Broadway scores. It doesn’t hurt that a good number of songs in the show are very familiar already. And the cast can first and foremost belt the songs loud and clear, with none of the dreaded distortion of the Broadway vibrato.
But the major supporting element is the set, by Christine Jones. The St. James Theatre has a very high proscenium. The walls, which define a pretty shallow stage area and climb upward ad infinitum, are covered with newspapers and propaganda, and pale enough to receive projections and lighting effects. About 40 TV screens of various sizes punch through the wall or hang; they not only display video (live and recorded), they occasionally become lighting fixtures as well. The sum effect of the set is a never-ending vertical chute, the bottom of which collects the angsty teen detritus of society. Every time they climb up the clever “ready-made” rolling ladder and staircase, they tumble right back down—onto the floor, a mattress, or the hospital gurneys that wait to catch them once more. Panels open to become windows and doors, revealing a world beyond to escape to, but they always slam shut like a trap.
The story is fairly cursory. Three teen guys take different routes and all pay the consequences before returning (or remaining) home. Johnny (a solid John Gallagher Jr.), heads to the city to pursue being an artist, becomes an addict, hooks up with Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones, who gives the fullest, most committed performance, despite the male-heavy bent of the show), and is adopted by St. Jimmy, the electric Tony Vincent, with a live-wire body and fog cutter voice. Will (Michael Esper) has impregnated Heather (Mary Faber, with a pure, cool soprano), which snuffs out his dreams. And Tunny (the aptly named Stark Sands) heads to the Gulf War, where he loses a leg. He performs one of the most magical scenes involving speedy, precise aerobatics, but most of the movement (by Steven Hoggett) is suitably prosaic. It’s more animalistic than dance, driven by gravity, such as stamping, punching fists, gatoring arms. One wrenching scene begins with projected floating sheets of paper, followed by the performers lying on their backs, limbs flailing, 9/11 incisively evoked.
The band is situated on the sides of the stage, with string players on platforms of different heights. The show is a jam-packed, nonstop 90 minutes. It’s a vehicle for Green Day’s particular brand of pop/rock, and a welcome entry to the list of recent shows—such as Spring Awakening and Fela—that have flouted the bloated and cloying traditional Broadway model. There’s also the chance that Green Day, the multi-platinum, arena-filling band, might show up to play an encore set. Whether that appeals to you or not will likely determine your feelings about the show, but no matter, a few musical hooks, like Wake Me Up When September Ends, will haunt you thereafter.
Image: Stark Sands, John Gallagher Jr., and Michael Esper in American Idiot. Photo: Paul Kolnik.