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American Idiot Is Pretty Much Music All the Time

The setup: The American punk rock band Green Day cooperated in turning its best-selling album American Idiot (five million sales) into a stage musical that opened in Berkeley, CA, and then moved to Broadway, where it ran for a year, to mixed but often favorable reviews. It was praised for its energy and innovation, and faulted for a thin narrative. It is now touring U. S. cities, and is in Houston March 21 to 23.

The execution: This is, first and foremost, a testosterone-charged tale of youth. The abstract set consists primarily of a movable metal staircase and close to 30 television sets of various sizes, operating, in what looks like a warehouse that might double as the anteroom to a nightmare.

As we open, the music blares, a phalanx of fit youths cavort onstage, and bright lights flash into the audience, blinding us, and sounding the alert that we are about to be subjected to an assault.

This production is not really a rock opera, for operas have varied characters and interesting plots, filled with either drama and heartbreak, or broad comedy. What we have here is a rock concert set upon a stage, where the men are willful and energetic, wear black tank-tops, do drugs, play guitars, and are largely interchangeable. The women are as fit as the men, and as tough as nails.

We never really have much chance to get to understand any of them, though we do meet the three buddies, each of whom follows a different life path. Johnny (Jared Nepute) moves to the big city with his guitar, does drugs, and gets involved with a girl, Whatsername (Olivia Puckett). Will (Casey O'Farrell) gets his girlfriend Heather (Mariah MacFarlane) pregnant, and feels trapped. Tunny (Dan Tracy) enlists in the Army, gets wounded, and meets a girl (Taylor Jones). Carson Higgins as the drug dealer St. Jimmy rounds out the cast, which also has a huge and talented ensemble.

Because the music is almost non-stop, and so overwhelming, we become passive spectators, almost forbidden to form any empathy for these young men. The voices are fine, and often more than that, intriguing, and the onstage band is great. But, toward the end of the 95-minute, intermission-less performance, as the percussion signaled yet another powerhouse song was about to begin, my heart sank; this musical is definitely for the young. Or I want to be hearing the music out of my seat, in a hip disco, wandering through the enthusiastic crowd, on its feet, screaming its joy.

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The musical is promoted as telling the story of three lifelong friends, forced to choose between their dreams and the safety of suburbia. But their dreams are shallow - guitar, girls and sometimes drugs - and the safety of suburbia may be a mirage; the premise here is false. My favorite line in the production is from Johnny, after he has bedded a girl, reporting "She knows I'm bullshit, but she thinks I'm cute." I tend to lean toward the first part of that line, though the Hobby Center's youthful audience clearly went with the second part.

There are moments of fascinating stagecraft - the lure of the Army is dramatized vividly and persuasively, and I went along with the multitude of television sets and the metal staircase until repetition soured me on them. And I'm still mystified by a dream sequence in an Army hospital where a houri enters - with appropriate smoke. But, if you're under 30, see it, if only to prove me wrong.

The verdict: A rock opera turns out to be more of a concert and less of an opera, but it seems to excite a young and enthusiastic audience.

American Idiot continues through March 23, Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information or ticketing, call 713-315-2525 or contact www.houston.broadway.com.

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