TIME OF YOUR LIFE Don’t laugh, Green Day’s hit post-9/11 album makes a great night of theater.
As the crowd spilled in for Tuesday night's Boston premiere of Green Day's American Idiot (at the Opera House through January 29), necks craned and fingers pointed, mohawked guys in their mid-30s and elderly couples jostled for their seats alongside teenage girls in plaid skirts and suspenders. The thick red curtains, gold brocade, and gilded statues climbing the walls seemed to clash mightily with the program for the evening.
But then again, who thought, back when it was first announced, that the "Green Day musical" would go on to become a Tony-award winning Broadway hit? This touring production was enough to quash lingering skepticism. The show rocked — loudly — and every aspect was on-point, thanks to gutsy director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening), who has somehow successfully created a live compilation album for the stage.
As the curtains parted, a mash-up of post-9/11's greatest hits — Bush rambling in his State of the Union, oil spills in the Gulf, terrorist plots — blared over the crowd, the images projected on thirty-odd television screens across the set. And then, bam! There's our hero Johnny (Van Hughes, in requisite Billie Joe eyeliner), belting the opening lines of "American Idiot." The stage leapt to life, with the band onstage, not in the pit, tucked amongst the industrial bric-a-brac and beat-up couches.
The plot follows three friends — Johnny, Will (Jake Epstein) and Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) — bored to death in a suburban hell as they decide to strike out on their own. In a nice twist, the bus tickets for these angry suburban rebels are paid for by Johnny's mom. In the big city, their story quickly escalates into an angst-ridden few months: heavy drug use, teenage pregnancy, war. The Green Day songs that provide the play's foundation are woven neatly into a serviceable narrative with a minimum of between-song dialogue. In place of an elaborate story, we get hyper-kinetic physicality — the cast are always moving, moshing, jumping, climbing. The show becomes a long cry of rage and frustration, tinged with a metallic sense of danger, evoking the kind of mixed emotions of anger and release that will be familiar to anyone who's ever blasted "Jesus of Suburbia."
Though the performing talent in this production is impressive (Gabrielle Hamilton as love-interest Whatsername is a vocal powerhouse, and Joshua Kobak is simultaneously terrifying and captivating in his screamo-meets-Bowie characterization of drug dealer St. Jimmy), Christine Jones's Tony-winning set design deserves equal credit. The stage continually shape-shifts: an apartment building here, a basement there, a bus trip, and — the most chilling tableau of the night — a wrenching, Twin Towers-evoking "Wake Me Up When September Ends," set to a backdrop of fluttering papers and dancers miming falling through the air.
Good as the show was, it's high point may have been its encore. So much is going on, that you might not have noticed that hit single "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" was not part of the line-up. After the standing ovation and the exodus of the first wave of the audience eager to beat the crowd, the curtain rose again, revealing every cast member wearing an acoustic guitar, singing directly to the remaining faithful. The performance of this nostalgia-tinged ballad-anthem was sweet and heartfelt, a fitting breach of the fourth wall.