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Review: 'American Idiot' proves rock opera is here to stay

| Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, 10:57 a.m.
Alyssa DiPalma (Whatsername) and Alex Nee (Johnny) in 'Green Day's American Idiot.' Photo by Turner Rouse, Jr.

Rock and roll is here to stay.

Generations of musical theater fans have been enjoying rock musicals since “Hair” debuted almost 50 years ago. It's time for musical theater fans to welcome it into the family.

Each generation has found a rock musical to call its own, whether it was “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “The Who's Tommy” or “Rent.”

Now 30-somethings have “Green Day's American Idiot,” that opened Tuesday at Heinz Hall, Downtown, as a presentation of PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh.

Like “Spring Awakening” that played here in 2009 as a touring production, “American Idiot” offers ample evidence the rock opera has earned its place in the musical theater world.

Born out of the punk-rock group Green Day's 2004 concept album, the musical aims itself at 30-somethings just as the others did for earlier generations.

The songs, threaded through the story in the same order as on the album, have a literacy — and frequently a poignancy — that is best enjoyed if you are already familiar with the lyrics or can Google them on your smart phone.

Granted, it's not for all tastes.

If you object to shows with drug use, scantily dressed men and women, hetero- and homo-sexual couplings, profanity and examples of youthful excess, do not go.

As with many rock musicals, the characters are not complexly conceived and the storylines may lack surprising twists.

But, to be fair, did theatergoers flock to “Dames at Sea,” “No, No, Nanette” or “Starlight Express” to get a new appreciation of the human condition?

Older, more traditional theatergoers will find the story lines reassuring and the necessarily loud but rhythmic rock music accessible.

Green Day fans, should find themselves well served with a rendering of familiar tunes such as “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” “Jesus of Suburbia” and “When it's Time” that Tom Kitt's arrangements and orchestrations have only slightly smoothed out to appeal to musical theater buffs.

Others — especially younger audience members — may feel it's already a nostalgia piece.

“American Idiot” took six years to move from Grammy-winning, chart-topping album to Tony nominated musical.

Now, almost a decade from the album's debut, the show's projected images of George Bush, 7-Eleven, the Iraqi conflict and network TV shows already feel dated in a world that has moved on to Hulu and podcasts on their smartphones.

Nevertheless, at 90 intermission-free minutes, the relentless and fast-moving succession of sensory overload visual effects, rock music and choreographer Steven Hoggett's visceral, confrontational choreography propels you effortlessly through what's largely a familiar tale.

Scenic designer Christine Jones, lighting designer Kevin Adams, sound designer Brian Ronan and video/projection designer Darrel Maloney have concocted a towering set of monitors and electronics that fills every inch of the Heinz Hall stage. A plethora of monitors dazzle and distract with bursts of sound, video clips and iconic, often ironic, images.

As its title suggests, it's about a trio of suburban young adult males passing aimlessly and cluelessly through their idiot years toward some semblance of adulthood.

Will (Casey O'Farrell) gets left behind in suburbia with a pregnant girl friend while his friends escape to the city. Johnny (Alex Nee) dives into sex and drugs and Tunny (Thomas Hettrick) enlists to fight in Iran.

While there are no surprises there or and the story's resolution is depressingly downbeat, the cast compensates with an engaging display of energy, suppleness, conviction and bravado that can only be provided by the young.

The non-Equity cast is primarily recent or near-graduates of colleges and universities.

In this show, that's not a problem.

What's needed here is energy, bravado and agility, not nuance and subtext.

The cast delivers admirably whether it's agonizing with frustration or soaring — at times literally — through life.

Alyssa DiPalma and the women of the ensemble hold up their end admirably with “Letterbomb” and Trent Saunders creates a properly chilling St. Jimmy.

The production ends on a disconcerting down note with Nee's Johnny crooning the wistful song “Whatsername.”

But the cast returns to reenergize ticket holders with a high-energy finale that kept the aisles clear of exiting patrons as audience members savored one last number.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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