American Idiot: Sex, Drugs, and Operatic Punk 'n' Roll

Punk rock opera
Punk rock opera
Photo courtesy of SRO Productions

The set-up:
Wow, man, what a rush!
SRO Productions supplies an intoxicating high with this imaginative, exhilarating performance of Green Day's American Idiot, a punk rock opera that's more excessively “verismo” than any work Mascagni or Puccini, those Italian masters of the genre, could have dreamed.

The execution:
Rootless young suburban rebels without a cause face a bleak future. They fight “the man,” the system, the country, its wars, without knowing why, and give us all the finger while they do it. Sung to pulsing heavy metal and choreographed with slashing movement, the “fuck you” gesture is their banner. “I don't care if you don't care,” is their protest mantra. They search for something, anything, to alleviate the pain, as they slog down “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (one of the numerous classic songs in this fresh, energetic score) but find the usual suspects: sex, drugs, and a numbing anomie that feeds the first two. They might find redemption in their own tribe, but their peers are just as listless and fed up, existing in a “City of the Damned,” telling us their “Tales of Another Broken Home.” They protest without a clue, or momentum.

Thrillingly adapted from the band's 2004 concept album and larded with other appropriate Green Day numbers, this uniquely American musical is replete with destructive post-teen spirit and rebellion. These aimless representatives of future America are filled with rage, but all they really want is love. They drag us vicariously through the horrors of the journey, its vein-pumped highs, demonic lows, and tantalizing glimmers of hope.

Written by Green Day frontman/lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong and director Michael Mayer, responsible for the vibrant Spring Awakening (this show's twin), American Idiot is a cultural lodestone, luring us into its dark, unforgiving world with a score of unstoppable gravitational force and lyrics of shrieking desperation. These characters do not go gentle into the good night. The “musical” reached Broadway in 2010, stayed around a year, and received Tony Awards for lighting and sets and a nod for best musical. It lost to Memphis, a much more unadventurous, traditional show. Idiot's score, unfortunately, couldn't be nominated for original music, because it wasn't composed strictly for a Broadway venture. The show's soundtrack album, however, did win a Grammy.

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SRO's intimate theater literally explodes with twitchy angst, exuberant debauchery, and love-sick wayward youth, like the East Village's famed CBGB on steroids. A thick druggy haze envelopes the small space while video clips of people acting stupid project on the background. G.W. Bush makes an appearance talking stupid. Someone flashes him the bird. The cast, all goth and grunge, hangs out, drinking and smoking, an amiable pot party. Some huddle near the trash can in the upstage corner, some lounge on a sofa to our right, beer bottles and bong prominent, one tosses on a rumpled bed. In black leather, torn jeans, and de rigueur T-shirts they exude feral danger, not an A&F clone among them. L.A. Clevenson's swap shop costumes seem as natural as second skin.

The story follows three best friends, a Rake's Progress of millennials. All want to escape from small town to the big city. Johnny is first among equals (Justin White), and his journey into hell and back is the musical's main line. Aimless, sleepy Tunny (J.T. Fisher) goes with Johnny's flow; while Will (J.T. Hearn) never makes it to the bus. His girl Heather (Connor Lyon) announces she's pregnant. Resentful, he stays behind and dulls out with booze and dope. Desperate for a buzz, he drinks bong water.

The big city's a washout, its streets clogged with others as faceless as Johnny. When he spies Whatshername (Ragan Richardson), he hopes for a chance and a change. Depressed and zoned out, Tunny joins the army. But lurking in the city shadows is satanic St. Jimmy (phenomenally charismatic John Forgy), who hooks Johnny with the pain-relieving allure of heroin. The three guys' stories intertwine, each song being its own scene. Because there are three narratives, the characters' motivation and development remain somewhat superficial and sketchy, so we're never truly drawn tightly to their plight as we should be. This, in no way, is the fault of SRO, it's the original show's flaw, it's only one. We sit back, amazed and agog at what these guys go through, but we never become part of it. We don't feel their pain. But we hear it magnificently.

Everything in this production works, and the cast is superb, top to bottom. Director Chris Patton's deft execution of this material is amazingly accomplished. The show flows like smoky wisps of a pipe dream, then screams in frustration, pounding like a heart about to break. Who knew such numbed souls could exude so much propulsive radiance. Perhaps, that's because choreographer Eric Dano has created movement that perfectly captures the mood of each song's particular essence, whether marching in lockstep to “Favorite Son;” writhing in calligraphic exotica in “Extraordinary Girl,” Tunny's hallucinatory trip under morphine in an army hospital; or leg kicks and punching moves for the girl-power phalanx “21 Guns.” When the show does stop for aching ballads like “When It's Time” or the iconic “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” the blowback from arrested motion is palpable. Dano's dynamic work is spectacularly imaginative.

The cast is equally spectacular. All sing like rock stars. White's Johnny wails in torment, then softly croons to his sleeping girlfriend. He can't confess his aching need when she's awake. He's the nice, middle American guy driven over the brink. We completely root for him, even though he makes such unbearably bad choices. That he makes it back home, maybe not in one piece, is evidenced in his striking, plaintive voice. Slight J.T. Fischer turns Tunny into a most sympathetic portrait. Although it's not made entirely clear why he enlists for Iraq, his emotive tenor says all, helping us believe in the path chosen. That his enlistment is facilitated by ensemble member Kiefer Slaton (a picture-perfect embodiment, with voice to match, of Mr. America) might be reason enough. With his rich fluid baritone, J.T. Hearn has the best voice and brooding stage presence that works wonders for addled couch potato Will. His character doesn't have much to do except sit around, smoke pot, and watch his exasperated wife walk out on him, but whenever Hearn sings, the musical takes off into a higher realm.

Ronna Mansfield, as Extraordinary Girl, the nurse who falls for Tunny, has plummy, rich sound; Richardson, as Whatshername, wails impressively through “Letterbomb,” her defiant goodbye to drug-plastered Johnny; and Lyon, as beleaguered Heather, uses her pure soprano to probe farther into her character's basic goodness. Joining Slaton, the impressive ensemble includes Bryson Baugus, Eboni Bell, Heather Buzonas, Scott Lupton, and Cody Ray Strimple. All are troopers of the highest order. Under the musical direction of Tamara Robertson, the raucous band comprises Sean Ramon (drums), Matt Willhelm (guitar), James Hyatt (keyboard and guitar), and Ryan Mohrman (bass). They sound like the Philharmonic. They know their Heavy Metal.

And then there's John Forgy as man from hell, St. Jimmy. What a revelation. He is one scary dude! Oily and ophidian sleek, all in black, of course, eyes rimmed in kohl, sporting a tie emblazoned with skeletal third finger salute, he's a gargoyle straight out of Bosch. He curls himself against Johnny, tempting him. Dare you, he implores in sinewy come-on, while spitting out Green Day's venomous “Last Night on Earth.” He drops the tourniquet and needle on Johnny's bed with the nonchalance of some convenience store drudge. So deliciously wicked, who could possibly resist? Forgy's searing performance is unforgettable, one for the books.

The verdict:
SRO's American Idiot is one for the books, too. Marvelously adept, constantly surprising, it leads you on a stunningly provocative head trip, certainly to a place you weren't in before you arrived. Always on the verge of swooning, the American musical shouts out with joy at SRO. It is very much alive and kicking. Go, see this exemplary example of post-Sondheim Broadway. Out of your comfort zone and into the theater! That's my protest sign.

American Idiot continues through October 31 at Obsidian Theatre, 3522 White Oak. Purchase tickets online at obsidiantheater.org or call 713-300-2358 or 832-889-7837. $27.50-$37.50.


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