by Lynn on January 1, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Toronto Centre for the Arts. Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer. Music by Green Day. Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong. Set by Christine Jones. Costumes by Andrea Lauer. Lighting by Kevin Adams. Sound by Brian Ronan. Video/Projection Design by Darrel Maloney. Choreography by Steven Hoggett.

Part of the DanCap season. Plays until January 15, 2012.

AMERICAN IDIOT is a blast—angry, raucous, poignant, but in sum, a blast. The musical opened on Broadway in 2010, and is based on Green Day’s 2004 Grammy Award winning album of the same name. Toronto is the first city of the show’s North American tour.

It concerns three friends from boyhood—Johnny, Will and Tunny–each floating through life without purpose, and vaguely searching for it. They are all angry and raging, but the reason is blurry. They dream of leaving the suburbs and going to the city to seek their fortune? Future? Something? They all manage to get the bus fare—Johnny, the most excitable and damaged of the three, brags that he robbed a convenience store for the money; then says he really stole the money from his mother; and finally admits that he borrowed the money from her. That journey to the big city marks the beginning of huge changes in their lives.

Will is about to leave with his friends when his girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant. He stays, not out of responsibility, but because he can’t make any other choice. He’s trapped. He offers no support to her even when the baby is born, choosing to strum his guitar while she does all the parenting.

Johnny is a kind of narrator, listing off the dates of the milestones in his and his friends’ lives, beginning with February 2011. He falls in with a bad crowd and becomes addicted to heroin and alcohol. He believes what his stepfather said about him, that he’s a loser and would amount to nothing. Being in a drugged haze is what a loser like him would do, is his thinking.

Tunny through some patriotic sense, joins the armed forces and goes overseas to fight in Afghanistan. He comes back with all his illusions shattered, but he is not destroyed by the experience.

September 11, 2011 changes their lives again and in one way or another they come home. Will takes responsibility as a parent. Johnny comes back damaged, fragile, lost and thinks a desk job might set him straight. Tunny has to cope with various issues both mental and physical. It is not a sweetness and light ending, It’s sobering and apt.

The music of Green Day and Billie Joe Armstrong’s lyrics give this show a throbbing, blaring sense of urgency and immediacy. Whether it’s the loud, furious “American Idiot” which sets the tone, mood and decibel level of the show, or the touching “21 Guns” or the haunting “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” AMERICAN IDIOT captures the latest generation of disaffected youth.

Every generation seems to have its musical that speaks for it. There is HAIR (1967) that expressed that generation’s anti-Vietnam sentiments for the whole decade of the 1960s. RENT (1996) the late Jonathan Larson’s modern take on La Bohème, focuses on a group of young artists and musicians who left their comfortable lives to live, work and make art in the East Village of New York City. Their bond with each other, no matter the social strata, is intense. SPRING AWAKENING (2006) set in 19th century German (and based on the 1890 play of the same name by Frank Wedekind) is about the sexual oppression and obsession of teens in a repressive society. In that case the music is modern rock, thus making a story, more than 100 years old, immediate and totally of our time. AMERICAN IDIOT is a natural continuation of SPRING AWAKENING. These youth are not repressed. They are free to rage and be angry without knowing why or to whom.

It’s no coincidence that both the musicals of SPRING AWAKENING and AMERICAN IDIOT have such a vivid, throbbing, compelling presence, because they were both directed by Michael Mayer. For AMERICAN IDIOT he and his cast and design team have created a world of rage, grit, dazzle and all the stuff that we are bombarded by to get our attention.

Characters are delineated slightly. As Johnny, Van Hughes has the flashiest part, jerking almost uncontrollably around the stage while he is under the influence of drugs; singing such soul searching songs as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and “When It’s Time.” As Will, Jake Epstein broods on the couch, playing his guitar for solace. And as Tunny, Scott J. Campbell is a contradiction of strong-chinned resolve and fragility.

Christine Jones’ set for AMERICAN IDIOT involves simple furniture, a mass of scaffolding, and a wall with more than 30 television screens. Those screens are full of Darrel Maloney’s video projections of everything from product names and brands, images, and phrases going at warp speed. And the image of thousands of papers floating upwards takes the breath away. It’s all we need to see to know that the Twin Towers were coming down. Kevin Adams’ lighting bombards us with effects that dazzle and disorient (appropriately). Steven Hoggett’s choreography is controlled mayhem. The cast stomp, stamp, writhe and march to a different drummer.

I have a quibble. After what is thought is the final bow, the curtain goes up on the whole cast, holding guitars, ready for one more song to send us on our way. The sight is funny. The song is about hoping we had a good time. It’s up beat and lively. It’s a cheat. AMERICAN IDIOT does not have an upbeat ending. It is appropriate and thought provoking. To end with this upbeat encore diminishes the show and doesn’t give us credit for being able to deal with something that is both rocking and serious.

Quibble aside, AMERICAN IDIOT is a blast.

It plays at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until Jan. 15, 2012.

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