Some rock and roll musicals work. “Jersey Boys” doesn’t just coast on Boomer nostalgia – it has a great story and the production and performances are consistently first-rate. “Once,” currently on Broadway, is even better than the film from which it’s adapted, and does more than fine justice to The Swell Season’s haunting, lovelorn songs. Even “Rock of Ages,” that ridiculous swirl of hair metal cotton candy, delivers all of the camp and strut of the Eighties with a giant wink. And let’s not forget about “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” as if we ever could.
“Green Day’s American Idiot,” which finishes its two-run night at the Kentucky Center tonight, is not one of those musicals. It isn’t the worst musical I’ve seen this season – that honor goes to the John Mellencamp-Stephen King collaboration “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” (also a Kentucky Center Presents show, back in October) a hot mess of a song cycle dressed up like a musical that even T. Bone Burnett couldn’t salvage. “American Idiot” even won a couple of Tonys, for scenic and lighting design, both of which appear to be deserved. But a musical theatre production should elevate the source material to new heights, not just depend on an audience’s fondness for an album or artist to carry their interest in the show. As long as Green Day is still together and touring, there’s little this play can offer that a pretty good concert couldn’t beat.
Based on Green Day’s 2004 rock opera of the same name, “American Idiot” (music by Green Day, lyrics and book by Billie Joe Armstrong and book by Michael Mayer) takes a Grammy Award-winning punk-pop concept album about post-9/11 alienation and turns out an incoherent coming-of-age melodrama with thin characters, weak storytelling, choreography that doesn’t for a beat feel native to the music and, in this touring production, an underwhelming cast.
Three disaffected young men try to flee their stifling suburban homes to go adventuring in the big city. Johnny (Jared Nepute) and Tunny (Dan Tracy) make it out, but Will (Casey O’Farrell) stays when he discovers his girlfriend Heather (Mariah MacFarlane) is pregnant. Johnny falls in love with the city, heroin, his drug dealer St. Jimmy (Carson Higgins, in Thursday’s performance) and a girl, Whatshername (Olivia Puckett), in that order, while Tunny inexplicably enlists in the military and ships off to the war in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or whatever, I don’t think we’re supposed to get hung up on details here.
At times, the show devolves into unintentional hilarity. The portrayal of Johnny’s heroin addiction, which shapes much of the arc of the story, is laughably glamorous (a sexy dance with the tie-off tourniquet does need to be seen to be believed), and the sexy nurses prancing around the military hospital where Tunny ends up seem like refugees from a bad-idea Blink-182 musical auditioning down the hall.
Some of Green Day’s songs translate better than others to the stage, namely “Holiday,” “Favorite Son” and “21 Guns,” but oddly enough, the mini-opera “Jesus of Suburbia,” with its five epic, defining movements, feels like (forgive me) too much, too soon coming right on the heels of the eponymous opening anthem — which incidentally promises a show we never get to see, a more radical rejection of “the redneck agenda” of Bush Era politics and culture. And that would be fine, I guess, if “American Idiot” gave us a smart, sneering, (and above all) fun experience instead, but the show almost lacks as much in heart as it does in brains. The cynical denouement seems to say that if you leave your small town to pursue bigger dreams, you’ll just end up back where you started but broken, so why bother in the first place? I wish I had discerned even the slightest awareness of that during the curtain call, when the cast whipped out acoustic guitars and sang earnestly, in the style of a summer camp closing night ceremony, Green Day’s acoustic 1997 crossover hit “Good Riddance (The Time of Your Life).”
In the moment, none of that matters if the cast is first-rate. Great performers can make even the weakest material fun enough for a night out. But the voices and stage presence just aren’t there in this cast of recent college grads (this is a non-union tour), who all have bright futures and good training but aren’t quite where they need to be yet to carry this show. If this particular production came out of a university or community stage, it would be quite decent, but for $70 orchestra-level seats with a Broadway production pedigree, it’s a tough call. For $70, you could see Green Day themselves perform these same songs on their next tour without a bunch of chorus kids in Hot Topic hoodies dance-fighting in the background.