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Theater review: 'American Idiot' at the Ahmanson Theatre

March 15, 2012 |  3:39 pm

(l to r) Scott J. Campbell, Van Hughes, and Jake Epstein. Lower: A woman in a Burka (Nicci Claspell) descends on a group of wounded soldiers during
Whether “American Idiot” represents a new wave of musical theater or a surprising development in music video, there’s no denying the moody kinetic thrills of this rabble-rousing pop-punk show, which opened Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Based on Green Day's multi-platinum 2004 concept album of the same title and incorporating tracks from the group’s “21st Century Breakdown,” “American Idiot” alchemizes these recordings into a fluidly choreographed spectacle that is often mesmerizing. And while this touring version of the hit Broadway musical may not possess the same eccentric star power, the show is just as visually enthralling as when I first encountered it at Berkeley Rep, where it had its 2009 world premiere in Green Day’s Bay Area backyard. 

Director Michael Mayer (a Tony winner for “Spring Awakening”) deserves much of the credit for the show’s electric staging. This surreal multimedia kaleidoscope is set in the tumultuous George W. Bush era, after the shock of 9-11 had transformed into an Iraq War battle cry. And the production's loudly propulsive presentation recreates the feeling of an era that moved too spasmodically for anyone to keep up.

 PHOTOS: "American Idiot" on stage

American idiot 2 ahmanMayer, who co-wrote the book with Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, also bears the lion's share of responsibility for the musical’s biggest weakness—its wispy, somewhat clichéd and altogether retrograde coming-of-age narrative, which is ultimately more snarl than story.

But then one should probably be grateful that Mayer didn’t attempt to convert Armstrong’s lyrics into an old-fashioned book musical. All those jukebox efforts spawned in the wake of the “Mamma Mia!” gold-rush always end up seeming so remedial, with their famous songs forcibly stitched into grandmotherly quilts. “American Idiot” may have more attitude than profound things to say, but it at least gives the impression of being cutting-edge, thanks to Mayer’s inventive stagecraft, which compensates where it can for the show’s lack of literary finesse. 

Spinning its tale in collage fashion, the musical keeps track of three young men struggling to find a path out of their alienated slackerdom. There’s not enough dramatic material to call them characters, but they are recognizable as generational types—those rebels who have more causes than they can fully understand or articulate. What distinguishes their cri de coeur from, say, their 1950s predecessors is the changing landscape of American life. Sure, there’s plenty of generic railing against suburban malaise and the conservative establishment. But the difference is that the world really is going up in flames around them.

PHOTOS: "American Idiot" premiere

Video monitors spanning scenic designer Christine Jones' urban wasteland set flash with inane celebrity gossip and the paranoid news alerts that were routine in those years when the country’s nervous system was jangled by terrorism and the shock and awe that followed. George W. Bush's infamous ultimatum, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” resounds at the start of the show as an introduction to an upside down world in which media reports about bombings compete for airtime with brainless updates on Angelina Jolie.

Van Hughes takes on the central role of Johnny, the guitar-strumming protagonist who leaves his stifling hometown for the anonymous big city, where he quickly falls head over heels for both the alluring urban waif Whatsername (a spirited Gabrielle McClinton ) and the drugs of St. Jimmy (Joshua Kobak). Hughes has a commanding voice that can do memorable covers of such Green Day favorites as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” with its repetitive refrain “I Walk Alone” pounding away with captivating monotony. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite have enough idiosyncratic charisma to cover up the role’s one-dimensionality. The good news is that he sings like a rock star; the bad news is that he doesn’t hold the stage like one.

Following parallel courses in American idiocy are Johnny’s buddies, Will (a soulful and underused Jake Epstein) and Tunny (a bland but in the end gruffly affecting Scott J. Campbell). Will’s girlfriend (Leslie McDonel, bringing an insinuating pertness to the character) has gotten pregnant, derailing his plans for escape and leaving him stranded in self-pity on the couch with a bong and bottle. And after moving to the city with Johnny and spending endless days snoozing and channel-surfing, Tunny decides to enlist in the military to give his life some spine and direction.

What happens to Tunny at war may have you reflecting on the indebtedness of “American Idiot” to “Hair,” the grandfather of rock musicals. “Hair,” however, has a sharper countercultural focus than “American Idiot”—the politics here are more decorative and the social critique more generalized from a middle-class white male perspective. (This is the third time I’ve seen the show, and each encounter has left me a little more troubled by the way race and gender are superficially treated onstage.)

But this is a production that is designed to get the adrenaline rather than the mind flowing. Like the media-saturated culture it takes aim at, the show entrances its viewers, nowhere more so than in the “Extraordinary Girl” sequence, in which a Burka-clad beauty (Nicci Claspell) appears above Tunny’s hospital bed and invites him to join her in a high-flying dance number that is just one of many dazzling choreographic touches by Steven Hoggett, whose work here is as original as it was in the National Theatre of Scotland’s internationally esteemed “Black Watch.”

Of course the real draw is Green Day’s music, which has been superbly orchestrated and arranged by musical supervisor Tom Kitt. An onstage band, dimly apparent in the shadows of Kevin Adams’ galvanizing lighting scheme, helps to give this musical the same intensity as a full-throttle concert.

From the poetic “Are We the Waiting” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” to the defiant “Know Your Enemy” to the anthem-like “21 Guns,” the expertly performed songs cast a spell that had young, old and middle-aged audience members head-banging together at the Ahmanson. Now that alone is one incredible feat even if this merging of Broadway and VH1 styles is only a pit-stop on the way to the musical’s 21st century future.

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-- Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

"American Idiot," Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:00 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 22. $20 - $120. (213) 972-4400 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org/idiot Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Photos: Upper: (l to r) Scott J. Campbell, Van Hughes, and Jake Epstein. Lower: A woman in a Burka (Nicci Claspell) descends on a group of wounded soldiers during "American Idiot" at the Ahmanson Theater. Credit: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times

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