Based on the famed 2004 Green Day album of the same name, its story follows three headstrong suburban punks who are ready to find their fame in the illustrious big city, only to have their plans spilled everywhere like cheap beer at a concert. Will (Robert Breslin) learns his girlfriend Heather (Chandler Bates) is pregnant, which means he has to stay back while his best friends, Johnny (Frankie Chuter) and Tunny (Ethan Baker), take a Greyhound Bus out of their hometown. The two travelers' relationship dissolves shortly after they rent a room together and, depressed and manipulated by TV media coverage of the war in Iraq, Tunny enlists and is shipped off to a battle zone. Meanwhile, Johnny flirts with not only his dream girl — Whatsername (Hannah Gregory) — but also with heroin. The struggles of these three disillusioned young men takes the audience through a musical showcase of highly acrobatic choreography, edgy storytelling and a modern morality play about self-acceptance in the face of internal adversity.
American Idiot is more like a concert experience than a traditional evening of musical theater. Made five years after the critically acclaimed and Grammy-winning Green Day album was released, the stage adaptation eventually won two Tonys and a Grammy.
Onstage, the music is provided by a live band playing almost non-stop with only brief smatterings of dialogue from the cast in between showtunes. Musically, American Idiot is very similar to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Grease, as they're all structurally derived from Rock & Roll. While Green Day's instrumentation is more influenced by the likes of The Ramones than The Platters, it's only one degree away from the source; Green Day's Pop Punk is simply early Rock & Roll sped up to 200 beats per minute and seasoned with distorted chainsaw rhythm guitar.
The album, written by the band’s frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, was adapted into a libretto by Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening).
It's easy to see that Johnny's arc is directly inspired by Armstrong, whose struggle with addiction has led to the cancellation of multiple Green Day tour dates. The show's Johnny, who self-indulgently refers to himself as the Jesus of Suburbia, is plagued by an anthropomorphic representation of addiction in the manifestation of a temptress alter-ego named St. Jimmy (Maddie Vaughn), a Faustian bedeviler whose openhandedness is juxtaposed by her stranglehold on anyone who gets too close. Armstrong himself even took the stage in the role of St. Jimmy during the show’s run on Broadway.
Johnny starts to shoot dope while, back home, Will drinks Heather and the baby out of his life. There's a chilling moment when Tunny solemnly strums a guitar during a peaceful evening alongside his fellow soldiers, only to have the guitar taken away and replaced with an M16. Their individual plights mold together to represent a common thread of experiences shared by many Americans.
Special commendation to Chuter and Gregory for their onstage romantic compatibility as the tortured lovers Johnny and Whatsername. A small but highly-satisfying victory: a rose is thrown between Johnny and Whatsername, who is about 10 feet above him on the set’s scaffolding. This exchange happens twice and they both successfully make the connection each time. You ever try to throw a rose with accuracy? It’s a small detail in the show you could miss in a few blinks, but that had to have required some practice.
For longtime Green Day fans, the performance will be very satisfying — you couldn’t ask for a better rendition of American Idiot than the impressive performance at The Carnegie. The set design is emblazoned with angst and attitude and the lighting, albeit a bit aggressive, makes you feel like a mosh pit could break out at any moment. The show’s titular song rings out like an anthemic declaration that’s as relevant today as it was 15 years ago: “Don't wanna be an American idiot/One nation controlled by the media/Information Age of hysteria/It's calling out to idiot America.”
While the source material for American Idiot is a simple redemption story and the written characters lack depth, the bombastic performances and high-energy score makes for a head banging night at the theater.
American Idiot at The Carnegie (1028 Scott Blvd., Covington) runs through Aug. 25. Tickets and more info: thecarnegie.com.