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American Idiot: Idiotic, incongruous, lots of fun

A scene from American Idiot

3 out of 4 stars

What's the difference between a rock concert and a musical? Expectations, largely. American Idiot, the Green Day punk/pop/rock opera based on the band's 2004 album of the same name, doesn't entirely satisfy if you look at it through either of those lenses.

Viewed as a modern-dance show or a live-action music video, however, director Michael Mayer's propulsive production – choreographed into a clear narrative by Steven Hoggett – is really quite a rush, 90 minutes of eye-catching and ear-pleasing movement and sound.

Those who see punk as the antithesis of musical theatre harbour more illusions about the former than the latter, I suspect. American Idiot is surprisingly self-reflective about what it is to be furious and disaffected.

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The album revolved, loosely, around a character called the Jesus of Suburbia, who is seduced by and struggles with St. Jimmy, a sort of patron saint of self-destruction.

Mayer splits the music's point of view between three suburban slackers named Johnny (Van Hughes), Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) and Will (Jake Epstein), angry young men who each buy a bus ticket out of town and, they hope, their troubles.

Johnny – a wry, poetic and slightly whiny musician – moves to the city with his guitar and becomes addicted to heroin, personified here as St. Jimmy (Joshua Kobak). Tunny joins the military and is dispatched to Iraq. And Will refunds his ticket after discovering his girlfriend is pregnant, staying to stew in the burbs.

Green Day songs – a few from the album 21st Century Breakdown – are interpolated into the show, as well, providing the soundtrack to these journeys.

Between the title tune and other catchy riffs such as Holiday, Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Wake Me Up When September Ends, there's hardly any spoken text, beyond a few of Johnny's recited journal entries. What little there is, however, shortly and succinctly sets up the boys (and thus Green Day?) as unreliable narrators, and punctures the posturing of punk.

For instance, Johnny claims he got the money for his bus trip to the city from holding up a convenience store, and then alters his story to claim he stole it from his mother, before reluctantly admitting he simply borrowed it from her.

Listen to the lyrics too closely and you might become confused about the story or even mildly irritated at the incongruities. "Seems that she disappeared without a trace / Did she ever marry old what's his face?" Johnny sings sentimentally about a girl whom he had earlier attacked with a knife while high.

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But Hoggett's emotive movement keeps cognitive dissonance at bay. There are many beautiful moments, notably an aerial dream ballet between Tunny and the Extraordinary Girl (Nicci Claspell) that celebrates Tunny's unsophisticated reverence of women.

I'm not sure how much American Idiot will appeal to truly rebellious youths. The musical's message ultimately seems to be that you'll feel better once you calm down, grow up and put on a tie. This will, however, appeal perfectly to those who grew up listening to Green Day and still rock out to songs from their album Dookie on the way to work.

Perhaps this is why American Idiot's chorus of pop punks – costumed by Andrea Lauer in Ramones and (Toronto shout-out) Scott Pilgrim T-shirts – look about as threatening and fashionably up-to-date as George Stroumboulopoulos. (As St. Jimmy, meanwhile, Kobak recalls Rick the Temp during his MuchMusic heyday.)

The male leads are just a tad underpowered in this touring production. Hughes is the most magnetic, but could use an extra ounce of charisma to overcome the off-putting narcissism of his character; Epstein, stuck on a couch for most of the show, has trouble communicating the depths of Will's depression; and Campbell comes across as a symbol more than a fully rounded character.

Christine Jones's Tony-winning set – a television-screen filled wasteland that seemed to go up and up forever on Broadway – has been chopped in half here, taking away some of its oomph. In short, American Idiot isn't quite the thrill ride here it was in New York, but is still a pretty impressive spectacle.

American Idiot

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  • Music by Green Day
  • Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong
  • Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer
  • Starring Van Hughes, Jake Epstein and Scott J. Campbell
  • At the Toronto Centre for the Arts
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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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