Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

American Idiot
Oriental Theatre

Also see John's reviews of Bachelorette, Enron and Time Stands Still

Van Hughes, Joshua Kobak and Cast
A reflexive thing to say upon seeing a rock musical like American Idiot is to express a hope that it will attract younger audiences to the theatre, and also breathe new life and new audiences into the musical theatre. Upon seeing the first national tour company in its Chicago stop at the Oriental Theatre, I'm thinking the greater gift of American Idiot is to introduce musical theater audiences to the songs of Green Day, rather than bringing rock lovers to Broadway. There's no denying that director Michael Mayer has delivered a show with every bit of the production values Broadway and tour audiences have come to expect, but Green Day's songs are some of the most original and emotional to be heard on Broadway in recent years. They're generally categorized as punk rock, but to categorize them at all seems to diminish them. They have strong melodic lines, intricate harmonies, and Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong's thoughtful lyrics. There's a remarkable range from very loud, hard driving metal to gentle ballads (including "Wake Me Up When September Ends") accompanied by acoustic guitars.

Speaking of categorizing, Mayer's staging of American Idiot defies it. What he's done is not what I would consider a pure musical play, but rather a staged song cycle. Its characters and plot are not as fully developed as one would expect of a play, but that is not said to diminish it. American Idiot is about feelings and emotion, and while the plot may be a little hard to follow for newcomers to the piece (like me), the feelings it expresses are deeply communicated. The story concerning three young men looking for meaning in their lives (and basically not finding it) is told simply but clearly in songs that convey the guys' loneliness and confusion as they reject the accepted life paths of suburbia, which seems to be falling apart anyway. We may not admire Johnny, Will and Tunny, but we feel for them. Johnny (Van Hughes) is a fairly dim slacker who gets into hard drugs after leaving his suburb for New York; Will (Jake Epstein) tries to do the right thing by his girlfriend by staying behind with her after learning she's become pregnant; and Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) tries to escape his depression by joining the Armed Forces and quickly loses a leg in combat.

There's very little spoken dialogue or narration in American Idiot. Most of the plot is told visually through sensitive acting by the principals and the visualization by Mayer, choreographer Steven Hoggett, and the design team. A bank of some 20 TV monitors spread around the faux warehouse set by Christine Jones displays projections by Darrell Mahoney that establish time and place through TV news footage and assorted historical photos and illustrations. Hoggett's dances are amazing—they seem entirely fresh and original compared with anything else on Broadway. They owe much to dance club dance styles even as they are highly athletic and feel entirely appropriate for the characters and the energy and spirit of the music. Hoggett will soon be represented on Broadway with Once and Peter and the Starcatcher, and he ought to become a big name choreographer soon. In the midst of his high energy choreography, there's time for a stunningly quiet and beautiful number in which the injured Tunny, apparently on a morphine high, flies from his hospital bed with a vision of his nurse (known as The Extraordinary Girl, played here by Nicci Claspell). The costumes by Andrea Lauer are a fanciful but plausible portrayal of grunge and business wear, and the staging is lit to spectacular effect by Kevin Adams.

Green Day's songs are performed impressively by the young, athletic and extremely attractive cast. In the lead role of Johnny, Hughes has a distinctive, soulful voice, powerful enough for the heaviest rock numbers but controlled enough for a softly touching reading of the solo ballad "When It's Time." Though hardly a heroic or easily likable protagonist, Hughes keeps you with Johnny all along. Scott J. Campbell has a more traditionally powerful singing voice for the role of the stoic Tunny—first depressed, then drugged up on morphine and finally disabled yet not dispirited. Jake Epstein manages to keep us engaged with his character Will, who does little more than sit on a couch, read letters from Johnny and fight with his girlfriend Heather, played feistily by Leslie McDonel. Joshua Kobak is a charismatic St. Jimmy, the evil alter-ego drug dealer invented by Johnny, while Gabrielle McClinton has the chance to do some solid rock belting as Johnny's druggie girlfriend. The ensemble, most of whom get solo moments, provide impressive backup—executing Hoggett's dances energetically and precisely, and serving as perhaps a reflection of the main characters' generation.

Though the piece is not constructed or conceived in anything like the manner of a traditional musical—even much less so than Mayer's previous rock musical Spring Awakening—it was the talents of Broadway pros that adapted it for Broadway-style stages. Though rock concerts have production values equal to those of this and other Broadway shows, American Idiot has been visualized and musically arranged to tell its story (thin though it is) and put it in the hands of fully visualized and individual characters. Next to Normal's composer Tom Kitt re-arranged the Green Day songs from their original versions to be sung by individual characters and the ten-person ensemble, and the sound design by Brian Ronan keeps the heavily amplified music all in balance.

So, if American Idiot is more dramatic and (more dramatically staged) than a rock concert, but more about emotions than a traditionally plotted musical, where does it fit in? Somewhere in between the two, in a place which is—for now, anyway—all its own. It can be enjoyed for its showmanship or its musicianship, but its empathetic depiction of a certain segment of American youth—who have not found a place in the digital economy where so many of their cohorts have thrived, but who seem needed only to fight our country's wars at great risk to themselves—make it an important work of art whatever subcategory it fits into.

American Idiot will play the Oriental Theatre, 50 E. Randolph St., Chicago, through February 19, 2012. Tickets available through all Broadway in Chicago outlets. For more information on the tour, visit

Photo: Doug Hamilton

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-- John Olson

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