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Review: 'American Idiot' can't capture album's raw power

Posted 10:47am on Wednesday, May. 09, 2012

American Idiot was made for the stage.

Its origins are certainly dramatic — released in September 2004, in the midst of George W. Bush’s bid for a second term as president, Green Day’s edgy rock opera seethed with resentment, wrestled with paranoia and, in the process, cemented the Bay Area punk band as spokesmen for a generation skeptical of war, disillusioned with its leaders and unsure of its future.

The Rob Cavallo-produced record would go on to sell more than 14 million copies worldwide, and earn Billie Joe Armstrong and his bandmates a Grammy for best rock album in 2005.

The 13 songs on American Idiot remain, frankly, the best thing Green Day has done to date. By taking punk’s inherent raw fury and marrying it to an unorthodox (for the band) concept — the record follows the character Jesus of Suburbia and his close friends, as he lives through the turbulent early ‘00s — Armstrong and his collaborators (drummer Tre Cool and bassist Mike Dirnt) hit upon a rich vein of inspiration, perfectly capturing the tempestuous, screwed-up feeling in the air in the months after the United States went to war in Iraq.

Many critics noted at the time of its release that American Idiot would be a natural for a Broadway musical, but it wasn’t until 2009, when acclaimed director Michael Mayer finally brought the album (blended with Idiot’s 2009 follow-up 21st Century Breakdown) to theatrical audiences. Much like the album, American Idiot the musical provoked rapturous responses from critics, and took home two Tony awards in 2010.

Now on tour, American Idiot has come to Dallas and the Winspear Opera House, where it runs through May 20.

The lean, 90-minute musical suffers a bit in comparison to the record, if only because Mayer and Armstrong (who helped write the book) made the baffling decision to shuffle the order of songs, diluting the impact and undermining the emotional narrative the album still has. Inserting songs from the weaker 21st Century Breakdown doesn’t help; I was struck by how much better that material fares onstage, but overall, the end result the creative team desires is blunted.

Van Hughes anchors the cast as Jimmy (the album’s “Jesus of Suburbia”), and vocally, occasionally evokes Armstrong’s snotty tenor, just as his fellow actors — Jake Epstein (Will) and Scott J. Campbell (Tunny) — do a solid job evoking the close harmonies Armstrong shares with his Green Day bandmates.

Musically, much of the grit has been stripped away in favor of let’s-put-on-a-show polish, but that’s to be expected for a high-profile, Broadway production. In addition, the show employs a live band, which lends an extra urgency to the material, giving the feel of a rock concert, even as the limber cast is climbing all over the set and hurtling through the air.

Where the show stumbles is the usage of period-specific imagery on the many monitors dotting the set — it immediately cements the music in that early ‘00s era, rendering it slightly less relevant to audiences in 2012.

In listening to the album, one could easily reconcile those songs with the unrest fomenting in the streets now — it’s not much of a leap to imagine the Occupy crowd howling lines from American Idiot at advancing police officers — but the stage show feels dated, a pitfall of literalizing the abstract imagery found on the record. (To be fair, the record shows its age as well: Holiday’s snarled “Sieg heil to the president gasman” falls a little flat in the Age of Obama.)

Does the stage show do the albums justice? Yes and no.

As I said, 21st Century Breakdown comes away with its reputation burnished, but for a sheer visceral jolt, nothing can top hearing American Idiot at full blast. Those who hold the record dear might do well to stay home, and let the saga of Jesus of Suburbia play out on the stage of your mind.

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