Casting an eye about the packed house at the Buell Theater Tuesday night, I noticed something striking: The usual sea of gray and silver hair had been replaced by younger manes, and the dress code had been dialed back a bit.
It's a sad fact that few under 50 attend theater, but dishing up a show like Green Day's "American Idiot" certainly changed that - for a week or so at least.
The show is based on the Oakland punk-pop trio's 2004 album of the same name, a shuffle-defying collection of rock songs that demands to be listened to as a whole, from the balls-to-the-wall opening chords of the first track "American Idiot" to the melancholy guitar strains of the final number "Whatsername." It is one of the best rock albums to have come out in the past 20 years and touches many of the same places in the listener explored earlier by The Who in "Quadrophenia" and Pink Floyd in "The Wall." The setting, the grim days of post-9/11 Bush-era America, is new, but the theme of a young man struggling with sanity, drugs, his place in the world and the confusing deck seemingly stacked against him remains the same.
"American Idiot" was adapted into a stage musical by Green Day frontman and lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong and director Michael Mayer. Unlike some "juke-box" musicals where a band's songs are simply performed with some dance and a light plot layered on top, "American Idiot" lent itself more readily to a narrative given the recurring themes and characters across the album's tracks. With a little tweaking, some narrative glue and some reinterpretation of Armstrong's original lyrics, "American Idiot" was a huge hit on Broadway in 2010. This touring version kicked off in December and features many of the original cast members.
So is "American Idiot" a rock opera a la "Tommy" or "Jesus Christ Superstar?" Not quite. It's also not a typical example of musical theater. The band is on stage with the actors, for one thing, and in addition to singing, the three male leads occasionally pick up guitars themselves and really play. From the gritty realism of shooting heroin to a fantasy scene that features actors flying high above the stage, "American Idiot" is more interested in fixing a mood than following an airtight arc of plot, and the emotional result for the audience is a mix of hope and "oh well" - no triumph here, but a resigned acceptance of reality.
And those realities - sheesh! The lead character Johnny (Van Hughes) must choose between festering on a couch at his parents' house, sinking into a drug-addled emotional cesspool or putting on a tie and a nametag and toiling in front of a computer at some anonymous company (that tableau is followed immediately by a plea to "get me the f*** out of here!"). His buddy Will (Jake Epstein) inexplicably joins the army and promptly gets a leg blown off while the third friend Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) remains home to bicker with his pregnant girlfriend.
As a portrait of America in the 2000s, it's not exactly chamber of commerce stuff, but it brings home quite vividly the turmoil of those first few years after 9/11, when the America we thought we knew underwent a seismic shift. Seen from the vantage point of youth entering adulthood, it's a parable of dystopic pointlessness underscored by one great song after another.
And there is the great power of "American Idiot": Armstrong's collection of songs, both from the 2004 album and a few from the 2009 follow-up "21st Century Breakdown" show a songwriter at the top of his game. With an exceptionally talented cast backed by a crack live band, the show is a must-see for rock fans as well as anyone who wants to see the musical pushed to its limits.
"American Idiot" is not suitable for kids, with its simulated sex, drug use and enough F-bombs to make David Mamet blush.
What: "American Idiot"
Where: Denver Center Buell Theater
When: Tonight through Sunday with weekend matinees
Tickets: $20-$100 at www.denvercenter.org or (800) 641-1222