“American Idiot”: Ode to the Bush era

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Under the shroud of symbolism, a busy set, and abstract dialogue (conveyed almost exclusively in music), the plot of American Idiot, now showing at the Orpheum theater, is an excellently foreboding depiction of turn-of-the-millennium American suburbia. The show depicts three friends who depart on their own life paths early on in the show. The first is forced to stay in the suburbs with his pregnant girlfriend. The second pursues the love of his life while shooting heroin, and the third is enticed to enter the army and is sent off to war.

With the music of Green Day guiding the entire plot, the show appeals heavily the generation of ‘90s kids who grew up with the album “American Idiot” and have all seen the results of a politically convoluted and economically stricken country, sending teenagers off to war before college and promoting bureaucracy and politics before science and arts. In this regard, many parts of American Idiot struck right at the core of our society in a way that only recent generations can truly relate to. The characters’ demeanors and appearance is dead accurate: it would be impossible to mistake the setting for ‘80s rock, or ‘90s grunge, or anything other than 2000s punk.

That said, the music was sometimes too clean for the album it was channeling. At times it was hard to suspend the disbelief that comes with an orchestral punk arrangement. The anti-war, anti-”hollow lies” song “Holiday” lacks bite when sung by a troop of clean, broadway voices, and even the title song sounds sterile and off when the the audience can hear the perfect vocal control of the protagonist, Van Hughes, as he sings “… can you hear the sound of hysteria? The subliminal mind — f*** america!” Other times, though, the arrangements played to the advantage of the setting, with a warm, acoustic rendition of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” as a love song, or the use of “21 Guns” as a beautiful full company song; an ode to wasted lives.

The choreography (with Dance Captain Leslie McDonel and Assistant Dance Captain Vince Oddo) was fittingly energetic; violent even. Coupled with the acrobatics of the cast — tipping over scaffolding with cast members on top of it and an aerial dance “Extraordinary Girl” between a soldier and an angel — the aesthetic of the show was pleasingly crisp and strong. The plot elements and stunts were pulled off similarly well: on stage costume changes were so seamless they were hard to notice. With this energy came several downright haunting images that made the audience immediately forget the whimsical aspects of the play. The image of St. Jimmy cackling as the main character, Johnny, succumbed to his heroin offering brought shivers; the “I Amount to Nothing” monologue was sobering; and the scene with characters previously shown hanging out with their friends and later as casualties of war stirred unexpected anger.

The overall effect of American Idiot was chaotic and hard to follow in its plot, but ultimately emotional and powerful in its ominous imagery and strong subtextual political commentary. The music of Green Day showed through in ways that was sometimes overtly processed and at other times beautifully reworked. Viewers can expect to see a show that combines elements from seemingly the incongruous spectrums of broadway and punk rock, but also to be satisfied by this fascinating reinterpretation of an integral part of turn-of-the-millennium culture in America.