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Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Kick Ass Production of American Idiot

Also see Richard's reviews of Bruja and Ben Vereen at the Rrazz Room

Gabrielle McClinton and
Van Hughes

American Idiot, with music by Green Day and lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong, has come roaring into the Orpheum Theatre and will be there through July 8th. This marks the second time I have seen this electrifying musical, the first being at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre before it went to Broadway. American Idiot is probably the hardest-rocking musical I have ever seen; that said, it's still a Broadway musical for 2012.

The baby boomers had Hair, Generation X had Rent, and the current generation has Green Day's American Idiot. (This certainly was noticeable as the mostly young audience rose from their seats to applaud this young energetic group following the performance.)

The origins of this musical are dramatic. It was first released as an album by Green Day in September 2004, in the midst of George W. Bush's bid for a second term as president. The edgy rock opera seethed with bitterness and struggled with paranoia. It made the Bay Area punk band a symbol for a generation incredulous at war, disenchanted with its leaders, and very unsure of its future. The record sold more than 14 million copies worldwide and earned Billie Joe Armstrong and his bandmates a Grammy for best rock album in 2005.

The 90-minute musical follows the album. This truly feels like a theatrical rock concert, what with the bank of flashing TV monitors and psychedelic lighting provided by Kevin Adams and grunge costumes by Andrea Lauer. There is a seven-piece band on stage that sometimes threatens to damage your ear drums.

The plot follows three hometown buddies as they separate to journey through life. Johnny (Van Hughes), self-appointed "Jesus of Suburbia" and ambitious rock star, goes deep into drug use. Will (Jake Epstein) impregnates his girlfriend Heather (Leslie McDonel) and attempts married life, much to his dismay. Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) gets mesmerized into enlisting and is posted to Iraq where he loses a leg in combat. The production is designed to get the adrenaline, rather than the mind, flowing, and it certainly does.

The cast is terrific and a powerhouse of energy. Most of the ensemble and understudy ranks came from the New York production and are now clearly ready to take center stage. Van Hughes anchors the cast as Johnny. He has a commanding voice and can do a memorable cover of such Green Day favorites as "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" with its repetitive refrain "I walk alone." He sings like a rock star and holds the stage like one.

Jake Epstein and Scott J. Campbell give solid performances as Johnny's buddies Will and Tunny. Leslie McDonel, as Will's girlfriend, brings an ingenious liveliness to the character. Gabrielle McClinton gives a spirited performance as the urban waif Whatsername. Joshua Kobak gives an intimidating performance as the drug dealer St. Jimmy and gives a good account of terror in his performance.

Director Michael Mayer deserves much of the credit for the show's electric singing. He doesn't attempt to convert the songs into an old fashioned musical style. This musical has more brashness than philosophical things to say. It certainly has a cutting edge appearance about it, thanks to Mayer's imaginative stagecraft.

The music has been superbly orchestrated and arranged by musical supervisor Tom Kitt. There are dazzling choreographic touches by Steven Hoggett, including a high flying dance number in which a burka-clad beauty played by Nicci Claspell appears at Tunny's hospital bed.

American Idiot runs through July 8th at the Orpheum Theatre, Market Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 888-746-1799 or on line at For more information on the tour, visit Coming up next from SHN is Les Miserables, opening on July 10 and running through August 26th at the Orpheum, followed by War Horse at the Curran Theatre opening August 2 and running through September 9th.

Photo: Doug Hamilton

- Richard Connema