When Hair — the first rock musical — opened off-Broadway in 1967, theatergoers didn't know what hit them. The old way was dead, people thought, and from then on all musicals would have to be rock musicals.
Anyone who's been to Broadway lately knows that that hasn't happened. But as shows from Jesus Christ Superstar to Rent have shown, wrapping a musical around some amped-up axes and a kick-ass rock score still has the power to change the world.
American Idiot, the 2010 Broadway musical now touring the country (it landed at Denver's Buell Theatre on Tuesday), doesn't quite reach those heights. The story is too thin, the characters too shallow. But forget all that. The show managed to launch its own musical grenade into the often dreary little world of Broadway.
For those who've lived in a cave these last 10 years (and really, who can blame you?), American Idiot is based on Green Day's seminal 2004 album of the same name. Frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and the boys had always intended to dramatize their story of urban angst, but it took them five years to get it onto a stage. When they did, they expanded it both musically and storywise. The band gained a keyboard and cello, and Jesus of Suburbia (here renamed Johnny) is given a couple of equally uneasy friends, Will and Tunny.
The story, what little there is of it, has Johnny leaving his suburban prison of a life and heading to the city for its promise of freedom and excitement. Will desperately wants to go with him but is sucked back in when his girlfriend becomes pregnant. Tunny, on the other hand, does join Johnny, but he soon finds the city just as meaningless as their old lives and enlists in the Army.
Yeah, you could accuse the story of sexism, with nameless female characters like Whatsername and The Extraordinary Girl functioning more like symbols than real people. But the males don't fare much better. Despite their dreams, Will and Tunny remain as three-dimensional as stick drawings, and even Johnny deserves more depth. Strangely, the only character with any real complexity is St. Jimmy, a heroin-addicted punker who tempts Johnny to follow his own self-destructive path.
Is St. Jimmy a real person or just the darker side of Johnny's own ego? Who knows? And really, who cares? The reason you're going to pony up $80 or more to go, is the music. And it won't disappoint, whether you're a hardcore Green Day fan or not. The six-piece stage band plays with enough raw power to keep you pinned to your seat, and the energy doesn't let up for the 90-minute duration of the show, even during softer ballads like "21 Guns" or "Wake Me Up When September Ends."
What's surprising is that the choreography — yes, there's dancing — actually adds to the music, the dynamic ensemble giving each song its own unique expression. I was also impressed by the set, an industrial warehouse-looking thing that would be depressing if it weren't for the 37 widescreen TVs that flash an ever-changing array of images as comment on the action.
No, the musical will never be as intense as a real Green Day concert. But if you approach it on its own terms, it might just make you appreciate their music even more.
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