Hang with it; Broadway’s ‘American Idiot’ gets good

How Green Day's punk/emo musical gradually won me over.

You can almost imagine the choreo conversation: “Let’s see: what do rockers do? Fists. And kicks. And herky-jerks and monkey faces.”

Roughly the cast ArtsWatch saw in "American Idiot"...with a bunch of substitutions. Photo by  Litwin.

Roughly the cast ArtsWatch saw in “American Idiot”…with a bunch of substitutions. Photo by Litwin.

The results of these assumptions are the first thing to bombard you when you sit down to “American Idiot,” the musical homage to veteran punk/emo band Green Day now playing at Keller Auditorium.  A bunch of exuberant 20-somethings immediately launch themselves into a tantrum of synchronized air-punches on a set seemingly lifted and embellished from “Rent.” The cast starts out mad (argh!) for some reason (whatever, man!) and partying (woo!) near some couches (chill). Myriad TV screens on the backdrop flickered with a barrage of “pop culture,” but I could only think: The Real World, and Red Bull Team-Building.

But hang on; it DOES get better. In fact, eventually…believe it or not…it gets good.

The show is basically arranged like a three-ring circus, with lead Johnny in the middle, and his two friends Will and Tunny on the left and right flanks. Johnny (Jared Nepute) has to pull off the play’s few spoken lines, which drip with entitled suburban snark: “I knocked over a convenience store [for the money to leave town]. No, actually, I stole it from my mom’s purse. No, actually, she let me have it.” “I’ve got big plans.” Obviously, he’s an unreliable narrator. But we don’t have to like him to enter his story.

Johnny’s two friends Will and Tunny (Casey O’Farrel and Dan Tracy) start as twin slackers, but take divergent paths: Will surrenders to least-resistance, remaining in his hometown as a passive premature father. Tunny goes high-stakes, as soldier embroiled in Middle East war.

Meanwhile, “The female characters are garbage,” pronounced my blunt-but-unerring crit colleague Alison Hallett immediately after the show, and I can’t disagree. The script flunks the Bechdel test, with women functioning as mere devices to demonstrate and propel the men’s desires. Even though they’re not given much to work WITH, the top-notch female talent completely works IT. Mariah McFarlane almost dignifies the virgin/whore binary with her elegant performance; Taylor Jones almost transcends the tackiness of her Arabesque song-and-dance number with her beauty and talent, and RENT alum Olivia Puckett is nothing short of a rock star throughout, bringing that show’s energy to bear where it’s surely intended. But assuming punk rock is still mostly considered a man’s world, where musical theater more of a woman’s…somebody obviously made a “bros-before-ho’s” plot decision here.

So the female characters are underdeveloped, the narration is suburban angst-whining, and the “punk” choreography is a simian crap-storm. Noted and gloated. But trust me; it still gets good!

“WHEN does it get good,” you press me.

When Johnny’s glorious drug dealer St. Jimmy (Daniel C. Jackson) swoops onto the scene, a handsome, pansexual glam-goth-punk sprinkling glitter. St. Jimmy’s tall dark poetic charisma and swagger cannot be overstated. He’s Adam Ant on acid, with Elvis lips and Morrissey hair. (To the young’uns, I guess he’s an Adam Lambert? A Pete Wentz? Whatever. He’s the Tiger Beat wall poster any way you fold it.) Jimmy is peer pressure in ripped pants, and he seems to be in love with Johnny, which makes us: a) like Johnny better, b) suddenly crave hard drugs. The way Jackson brings his character to bear not merely as a personality but as a plot propeller, is crucial to this show. Jimmy justifies all of Johnny’s otherwise dumb shenanigans, which in turn give Johnny some real-life problems to hang his angst on. Those drug dealers, man. They’ll hook you.

At some point (possibly because Jimmy has made you high) you’ll start to notice that the vocal harmonies are freaking divine. Celestial. Breathtakingly, air-kissingly beautiful. These harmonies made me go “Mwuah!”—and if they were auto-tuned, I couldn’t tell. The young vocalists, with more husk than vibrato, solo like champs and blend clear as carillon bells. Overtones shimmer in the ether between voices.

“Harmonies are not very punk rock,” you retort, and you’re absolutely right, which brings me to what shouldn’t be a shocking revelation: Green Day are not very punk rock. They’re composers. Green Day are, at their best, power-balladeers; at their sweetest, love-lorn troubadours; and at their bad-assest, fast radio rockers…who just happen to wear punk patches on their jackets.

Even if that wasn’t always so, by this point, more than 20 years into their career, it’s probably fair enough. Punk rock may never die, but the rock-and-roll lifestyle frequently kills, so eventually—just like lead character Johnny—you have to decide to either plunge into the abyss, or swim back into the mainstream. At least Green Day’s done it graciously and transcendently, blowing up in a new age-appropriate sector rather than subsiding into obscurity. The fact that Green Day’s music BELONGS in a musical is therefore not a knock on their waning punk cred, but rather a nod to the band’s embrace of destiny: their music belongs in a musical, so they’ve put it there.

What suits these songs so well to the format? Green Day’s lyrics are just narrative enough, and just vague enough, that the songs can slot into a show and mean what they need to for plot progression. Their mix of moods and tempos translates well to the necessary dramatic blowouts and sensitive lulls. Most of Green Day’s power ballads become stage numbers like West Side Story’s “Tonight”: ensemble-compatible, interlock-able with refrains from other songs in the set, and accommodating to the mixed emotions of multiple characters, each singing their respective hearts out, facing the all-seeing audience.

The let’s-affectionately-call-them-“kids” in this show belong as much as the songs. The playbill reads like a pep rally (“Casey is super psyched!” “Olivia is stoked!” “Liam is pumped!”) and it’s borne out by the ensemble cast’s amazing energy on stage. Several are making their touring debut, radiant with optimism and sparking with camaraderie. When they’re not dancing the show’s doofus-y approximations of punk moves, they actually inhabit their bodies and roles very credibly. Egotism and idealism—the dual motivations of most of these characters—buzz along at a beautifully high wattage throughout. The actors’ version of drunk and high looks amazingly real, as does their pose of depressed and despondent. And they clearly FEEL the Green Day songs they sing. Their poignance is deliciously painful in “Are We The Waiting” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”

These triple threats are pros but too new to know it…which is probably why so much star-power falls within budget. Billy Joe Armstrong lookalike Andrew Humann isn’t the star, but he seizes his rare moments of spotlight by fully conjuring the rocker; Michael Pilato brings serious mojo to his cheesy strong-man soldier routine (Jimmy’s fellow recruiter and foil), Liam Fennecken gets a few noteworthy solos, and Franscesca Granell owns a z-snap attitude moment…not so much with vocals, but with applause-winning moxie. The kids are good. They really are.

I recognize in retrospect that I wanted to dislike this show. “Emo” being a slightly later culture wave than the one I rode, I’ve habitually dismissed it as bombastic and callow. Sure enough, “American Idiot” delivered some of the dumbness I’d expected…but ultimately it really pulled me through. And where the plot could’ve gotten really self-pitying and maudlin, it resists, instead shrugging into a wistful sense of “sh-t happens.” For your Broadway dollar, its pacing runs circles around “Mamma Mia,” its generational relevance wipes the floor with “Hair,” and its young rebel energy nicely reprises “RENT.”

“American Idiot,” I’m sorry I doubted you. You’ve got a lot of heart.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury

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