Review: Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ is the voice of a generation

It does not take long for “American Idiot” to get right up in your grill, which is the way it’s supposed to be. After all, Green Day is a magically melodic punk band that can drill your ears off one moment and permeate your soul with sublimely beautiful harmonies the next.

The first national tour of Green Day’s rock musical is running through July 8th at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre. This is most certainly a homecoming for the production, considering that it was created in collaboration with Berkeley Repertory Theatre back in 2009. It was also the only show I ever purchased at the Rep where I could only get tickets for the show’s extension, even as a subscriber. And that took place before opening night.

In a show that is an absolute rocker, what stands out more than anything is its energy. The youth of the show, led by Johnny (the searing Van Hughes), are being inundated with images that are smartly projected onto a plethora of flat screen televisions. Eat this food, hate this political leader, look like these gorgeous anorexic models, make this choice kid and you won’t be a pathetic loser your entire life. It goes on and on.

Photo by Doug Hamilton

Tunny (Scott J. Campbell), Johnny (Van Hughes) and Will (Jake Epstein) are best friends navigating their way through a post 9/11 world in “American Idiot,” playing through July 8th at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre (photo by Doug Hamilton)

The constant images that are thrust upon the youth make them want to lash out. It is this zeitgeist that captures a seething rage that exists in our youth today that makes the show not only mesmerizing, but critical. Director and book collaborator Michael Mayer, in this production as well as “Spring Awakening,” is brilliant at creating a not-so-safe view of today’s youth and the unique challenges they face in the 21st century.

The show explores the lives of three young suburbanites and their different arcs – There is the aforementioned nihilistic Johnny, who spirals down a path of drugs with his alter ego St. Jimmy (Joshua Kobak), Will (DeGrassi veteran Jake Epstein), who is dealing with the pregnancy of his girlfriend Heather (Leslie McDonel), and Tunny (Scott J. Campbell), seduced by the glory of the military.

There are also some arcs of love by the allegorically named The Extraordinary Girl (a subtly graceful Nicci Claspell) and a fascinating modern day Juliet that sits in a window known as Whatsername (A sultry Gabrielle McClinton).

“Idiot” follows a formula that is common within this style of musical theatre, which builds a theme and a storyline to fit into the existing catalogue of a group as prolific as Green Day. What successes within this style similar to “Movin’ Out” or “Mamma Mia” come down to is the music, and how the audience responds to those tunes. And that music, which is really the star of the show, positively soars. The balance of songs and how they shape the story also goes hand-in-hand with the running time of the show, which feels perfect within a 95-minute one-act.

Not only is it joyful to hear such grit and passion coming through every note, it is equally joyful to have an absolutely kick-ass band in full view, led by charismatic band leader and keyboardist Jared Stein. Stein’s five piece band brings much honor to the compositions of Green Day and the lyrics of front man Billie Joe Armstrong.

The show does not waste any time getting into the faces of the audience, starting off the night with the title song. It sets the tone for what’s to come and identifies what the damn problem is. We are a nation of televisions that we can now access on our phones, a place where 7-11 helps us get our powdered donut fix 24/7, and a place where the media creates a hysteria born out of a theocratic dystopia. It’s a cynical view to be sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s one that shouldn’t be listened to or addressed.

Any great musical needs songs that hit you where you live and that certainly takes place here. Both times I have seen the show, in the world premiere in 2009 and this first national tour, I have taken some younger Green Day fans. The cousin I took in 2009 weighed in on what she thought about 15 minutes in – “This is so fu****’ bad!”

And it is. Numbers like “Holiday,” with its hope of life outside suburbia walls, was a marvel and beautifully choreographed by Steven Hoggett on Christine Jones’ Tony Award-winning set. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” captures Jimmy’s yearning for love and lust. “Before the Lobotomy,” with its gentle simplicity tinged with sadness, let the audience drown within plenty seductive harmonies. And “Wake Me Up When September Ends” captures the feelings of loss in lives lived teetering on the edge.

“American Idiot” is a piece of work that brings forward a new audience into theatres they might have never ventured into otherwise. Even though the show feels just a hair dated based on the fact that the George W. Bush years are great fodder for the imagery on the screens, it still mostly captures how many of our youth feel now. There will be lost love. There will be pain. And there will be anger. But ultimately, getting through youth in one piece is the name of the game. Seven years will go so fast. And then 20 years will go even faster.

And when all is said and done, we can only hope we had the time of our lives.


Shorenstein Hayes Nederland of San Francisco presents the first national tour of “American Idiot”
Created from the music of Green Day
Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong
Directed by Michael Mayer
The word: If you go, be ready to rock. This show turns the musical theatre genre on its head and is a feast for the eyes with thrilling music to boot.
95 minutes with no intermission
The Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market St., San Francisco
Tickets range from $31-$100,
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit SHN’s official website.

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