I had a strong reaction when I first saw Green Day's American Idiot at the Beck Center for the Arts. I was irritated, then angry, then actually furious. I was not pissed off because of the punk rock music, but because of the behavior of the characters.
Actually, it didn't take me long to get my drawers in a bunch. The show begins with a series of hyper-cut images on five large video screens, showing various artifacts from the early 2000s including several of the luminaries from the George W. Bush administration. Once that concluded, our attention is drawn to three scruffy young men in their early 20s — Johnny, Will and Tunny — who are hanging out together with nowhere to go and no one to be.
Starting with the title song, the lyrics announce the tenor of the work quite clearly: "Welcome to a new kind of tension/All across the alienation/Where everything isn't meant to be okay." And then in the next song, "Jesus of Suburbia," when they sing, "There's nothing wrong with me/This is how I'm supposed to be/In a land of make believe/That don't believe in me."
So, these young people are definitely upset and detached from their world. In the early 2000s? And I'm thinking ... Really?! They're disillusioned about the world then? How about back in the 1960s when I was their age, when you didn't have time to mull over your free-floating ennui because there was a big war going on and if you were a guy in your 20s, as I was at the time, you were pretty likely to get your ass drafted and sent to Vietnam. Vietnam, the war that was covered every night on the TV news with daily "Kill Ratios" posted: Viet Cong, 235 killed; U.S., only 34 killed. Yay, we won today! Yes, it was those fevered 1960s days, when three of our leading political heroes were assassinated and we thought, well, that's pretty much the end of our world.
And so that's how I processed the show at that time, getting madder and madder as Johnny and his cohorts piss and moan and do drugs and have a baby and go to a much smaller war in Iraq.
But once I got home and calmed the fuck down, it occurred to me that I hadn't really been able to absorb the show at all, due to some serious Baby Boomer baggage. So I decided to go back, see it again, and keep an open mind. Because you know what? Even if kids 10 years ago, or kids today, aren't going through what us old farts went through back in the day, it doesn't mean they're not going through plenty of their own shit and they're damn well entitled to all the disaffection they feel.
And you know what I discovered on my return visit? Green Day's American Idiot is one hell of a good show. The Green Day music in this rock opera, with lyrics by lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, is always engaging and popping in unexpected ways. And when the show takes time to develop a melody, songs such as "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "21 Guns" and "Wake Me Up When September Ends" are as powerful as any you're likely to hear in any stage musical.
Director Scott Spence was clearly inspired by this material, and he's filled the cast with talented young performers, led by Dan Folino as Johnny. Folino's rich and nuanced singing voice is stretched loud and thin in this piece, but when he has time to act his way into a song, as in "Boulevard," the results are tremendously affecting. When he shacks up with a girl named Whatsername (Olivia Kaufmann), Johnny grabs for some peace and connection. But soon, Jesus of Suburbia's demonic alter-ego St. Jimmy (an electric Joseph Virgo) leads Johnny into hard drugs and the spiral that triggers.
Riley Ewing is a fine Will, frustrated at being left behind with his pregnant girlfriend when Johnny and Tunny head off to see the world. And Jonathan Walker White as slacker-turned-soldier Tunny is solid, losing his leg in an Iraq battle but finding his way back to his friends. Other key female roles are played by Annalise Griswold and Kristen Hoffman.
Performed on a set skeletonized with metal scaffolding, steps and ladders, and lit by bare light bulbs and red spotlights, the show feels as raw and immediate as the songs. So hats off to the production team that includes scenic and lighting designer Trad A Burns, innovative choreographer Martin Cespedes, conductor and keyboardist Bryan Bird, sound designer Richard B. Ingraham, and co-projection designers Adam Zeek and Douglas Puskas. Their individual talents come together and form a fist that feels like a punch to the gut.
And that's true even if the battles you fought yourself seem long ago and far away.