‘American Idiot’ at The National Theatre by John Stoltenberg

Among the exhilarating pleasures of seeing American Idiot now on tour at the National Theatre is experiencing this angsty, amped-up ode to antiestablishment disaffection performed full force in DC’s treasured temple of high culture. It’s a discombobulating blast. And Billie Joe Armstrong’s wildly imagined lyrics—scathingly antipathetic to conventional patriotism—keep detonating like verbal grenades.

Don’t want to be an American Idiot
Don’t want a nation under the new mania
Can you hear the sound of hysteria
The subliminal mind fuck America

The irony and incongruity that explodes in this revered venue is reason enough to revel in this powerhouse of a road show.

The cast of 'American Idiot.' Photo courtesy of National Theatre.
The cast of ‘American Idiot.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Fans of the 2004 Green Day recording American Idiot (of which I am one; I bought it soon as it came out) will be blown away. Director Michael Mayer and book co-writer Armstrong have turned that now-classic album into what has got to be one of the best rock concerts ever. The word “musical” does not come near describing what to expect—which has more in common with the sort of live event during which you can’t sit still; you have to move to the music, you have to get up and rock out, you have to imagine yourself viscerally in the mosh pit, high on electricity et cetera.

This being the decorous National Theatre, the opening night audience of course behaved themselves. But interiorly, from opening number to curtain-call acoustic surprise, it was as if there was really a rave going on.

Mayer and Armstrong have devised a semblance of a story structure to propel the songs (which come at rapid-fire pace, with scarcely a dozen words of dialog between). Three disaffected dudes take three different life paths. Will (Casey O’Farell) stays in their suburban hometown with girlfriend Heather (Mariah MacFarlane) whose baby he fathers. Tunny (Dan Tracy) joins the Army and gets injured in combat then nursed by The Extraordinary Girl (Francesca Granell, appearing in the role for Taylor Jones on opening night). And the show’s focal point Johnny (Jared Nepute) leaves behind girlfriend Whatsername (Olivia Puckett) and takes off for the big city where he meets drug pusher St. Jimmy (Carson Higgins). These seven leads are uniformly charismatic, have big, brilliant voices, and easily outsing the vocals on the album. Together with the ten-member ensemble they agilely embody Steven Hoggett’s choreography, which never ceases to amaze—angular analogues of inner angst, convulsive expressions of lust and protest, leaps and lunges of exaltation. The audience must needs sit still; this superb cast never does.

Could I follow what was going on plotwise during the 21 musical numbers? Not so much; I was sometimes lost. Did I feel I was getting to know intriguingly complex characters? Not really; they seemed hipster types. But did I mind? Not at all. American Idiot is driven not so much by plot or character as by its tuneful and powerful, by turns tender score.

The cast of 'American Idiot.' Photo courtesy of National Theatre.
The cast of ‘American Idiot.’ Photo courtesy of Jeremy Daniel.

To that aural end the production team has deployed eye-popping effects. Scenic Designer Christine Jones’ set is a dark and funky construction of video screens and whatnot that seems too cavernous and complicated to pack into trucks. Costume Designer Andrea Lauer gives fascinating glimpses into character that might escape notice otherwise. Lighting Designer Kevin Adams creates not only retinal shell shock (as befits the decibel levels) but also poignant moments to offset the brash soundscape (designed by Acme Sound Partners). And stunning visual effects are achieved by Video/Production Designer Darrel Maloney, who at one point takes the stage on a bus ride as marvelous as any Merry Pranksters. Offstage yet visible in the wings is a fine band of musicians. Led by Music Supervisor Jared Stein, they send Tom Kitt’s stirring arrangements and orchestrations soaring up into the top balcony.

No movie could do justice to this show. Only onstage can it be experienced fully for what it is. No recording will ever match it either. Only in real-time performance can it come fully alive. And on the basis of seeing the show last night at the National Theatre, I’m going to hazard a guess that American Idiot will never play in a more apt house. Its theme of disenchantment and discontent with the country—”the alienation/where everything isn’t meant to be o.k.”—resounds in this town as only it ought to.

And as only it can in America.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

American Idiot plays through February 23, 2014 at The National Theatre-1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (800) 514-3849, or purchase them online.

American Idiot website.


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