‘American Idiot’ musical exuberant but lacks depth

The porcupine-haired punk named Johnny, an exclamation point incarnate, sounded as if he had a bullhorn for a larynx as he voiced the question of the evening.

“Are we gonna waste our lives?” he boomed in a tone that suggested he was attempting to wake the Smith Center crowd from a deep slumber Tuesday. “Or are we gonna get the (heck) out of here?”

(Spoiler alert: the dude didn’t say “heck,” but another four-letter word that he and the rest of the cast of “American Idiot” frequently bellowed as if they were getting paid per expletive.)

The quest to salvage some meaning, a sense of purpose, from a scrapyard of boredom and idleness powered this raucous, barbed-tongue musical based upon the 2004 album of the same name from punks-turned-arena-rockers Green Day.

That record sparked a commercial and creative rebirth for the band in question, who came to fame in the mid-’90s as a trio of sardonic snot rockets lashing out at the detachment and ennui that engulfed them, penning cheetah-fast songs about masturbation and getting high and how numb it all made them feel.

Their tunes were mostly directed inward, equally ribald and reflective.

All of this changed with “American Idiot,” a curled-lip rock opera in which the band addressed broader themes of blind, compulsive consumerism, American imperialism and a complicit media that served as a conduit for both.

“Can you hear the sound of hysteria?” frontman Billie Joe Armstrong asked on the album’s title track.

It was a rhetorical question.

You were already listening to it.

“American Idiot,” the theatrical production, borrows elements from the album’s loose narrative, incorporating all of its songs as a well a couple of numbers from its follow-up, “21st Century Breakdown.”

The musical revolves around a trio of wastrel buddies, Johnny (Alex Nee), Tunny (Thomas Hettrick) and Will (Casey O’ Farrell), who seek to escape their dead-end town and head to the big city in search of some excitement.

The trip never begins for Will, who learns that his girlfriend is pregnant and stays behind to struggle with the demands of being a good dad and partner, swilling bong water, Velcroed to his couch.

Johnny and Tunny soldier on, with the latter quickly embracing the straight life and enlisting in the military while Johnny indulges in a smorgasbord of sex and drugs abetted by dope slingin’ punk St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders) and newfound love Whatshername (Alyssa DiPalma).

Their intertwined tales were told via amps-to-11 rock bombast courtesy of a six-piece band that performed on stage alongside the actors and mosh-pit choreography that could have passed for a punk rock Tae Bo routine

With elbows and hair whipping through the air, the cast threw themselves into the songs, all heaving chests and rolled shoulders, surging forth with the physical explosiveness of a linebacker hurtling into a ball carrier.

They stomped, lunged and soared across a gritty urban set design with exposed piping and a constellation of TVs that flashed images of presidents and cartoon characters alike and then dared you to tell the difference between the two.

It all made for some superbly staged spectacle, and yet, like the lives of Johnny, Will and Tunny, something felt missing, largely because the reason characters like these work in song is the very same reason they don’t do so as effectively on stage.

Good songwriters tend to speak in universals to better enable listeners to identify with the characters who inhabit their tunes, because it’s much easier to do so when the details are left for to the listener to fill in, ideally with his or her own emotions and experiences.

As such, many a songwriter’s sentiments are purposefully generalized so that as many people as possible can find a way to relate to them.

But pulling deliberately half-formed characters from a song and bringing them to life on stage doesn’t change the fact that they’re still half-formed.

This is the dilemma with “American Idiot”: the characters seem like founts of standard-issue, boiler-plate disaffection.

The cast wasn’t the issue here, as its adrenalized performances registered as a kind of theatrical stimulant.

Nee, in particular, impressed with his skill at approximating both Armstrong’s bratty snarl and the cotton-soft singing voice he employs during quieter moments.

Moreover, there were a number of alternately thrilling and poignant moments throughout the 90-minute, one-act show, such as when a thundering “Know Your Enemy” erupted in an explosion of guitar and gunfire before the roar was calmed by a sweetly sung “21 Guns.”

But it all felt like a grand expulsion of energy with no clear end in mind, release for the sake of release.

“Home, we’re coming home again,” the cast sang during “Homecoming,” near the show’s conclusion. But when it was all said and done, it didn’t seem as if they had ever really left.

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.

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