Jukebox musicals, from Mamma Mia! to Movin’ Out, tend to earn more eye rolls than respect from “serious” musical theater fans—though even that phrase is hard for this “serious” musical theater fan to write with a straight face. There’s an assumption of laziness and commercialism that comes with the idea of appropriating popular songs for the stage. And the transition from album to musical isn’t always a seamless one: Plots can feel forced, and Broadway-fied rock songs can just end up sounding sillier than the originals (looking at you, Rock of Ages).
American Idiot, the theatrical adaptation of Green Day’s 2004 opus of disaffection, doesn’t suffer from any of those problems. The haunting powerhouse of an album is a true rock opera in the tradition of The Who’s Tommy and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ, Superstar, and its eventual path to the stage was almost inevitable. Barely any dialogue is needed to fashion an affecting narrative for the show, which focuses on three early 2000s youths stifled by suburbia. Friends Tunny (Dan Tracy) and Johnny (Jared Nepute) flee to the city: Tunny rejects his life there and ends up in the military, while Johnny descends into a life of drugs and partying. Will (Casey O’Farrell) had longed to join them, but ends up stuck back at home with his newly pregnant girlfriend (Mariah MacFarlane, one of the show’s vocal superstars). Each struggles to cope with the consequences of his choice.
So many of American Idiot’s musical numbers are anthems and power ballads that the show’s energy has few chances to wane; it’s a testament to the non-equity cast of this national tour that they never let it do so. The non-equity status is worth noting because it’s unusual for a tour, but the impact on the quality of the production seems pretty negligible (a flying scene from the Broadway production has been cut, but that could easily be the result of staging challenges on the road rather than budget). The tone of the story is well served by hiring younger performers, and while the female leads outshine the male ones in the vocal department, there’s no weak singer in the cast. Among the men, O’Farrell lends a beautiful plaintiveness to songs like “Give Me Novacaine,” while Carson Higgins is a manic force as St. Jimmy, Johnny’s drug-dealing muse/alter ego. The chorus kills it on numbers like the rousing “Holiday,” the stirring “Are We the Waiting,” and “21 Guns,” the show’s emotional climax, led by the stunning Olivia Puckett as Johnny’s put-upon girlfriend, Whatsername.
It’s always a little disconcerting when a show set so close to the current time feels like an effective period piece, but American Idiot does have a bit of a time capsule feel to it. The industrial-looking set has television screens everywhere, playing memorable moments from the time period and flashes of commercial imagery. The show really seems to emphasize the nuances and multiple dimensions of American Idiot’s songs: the audience can be at turns frustrated with or sympathetic to its characters without having to fully buy into their youthful rage, muddy politics, or general ennui.
Steven Hoggett’s jerky, head-banging choreography is a good match for American Idiot, though it occasionally veers toward the overly literal. The show, directed by Michael Mayer, has a similar feel to another Broadway take on misspent youth, Spring Awakening, though things aren’t as bleak for the show’s protagonists here. American Idiot’s ending isn’t a tidy or a happy one, but it also isn’t a tragedy. Life isn’t going to be easy for these kids, and that’s not only okay—it’s realistic.
American Idiot is at National Theatre through February 23. Running time is about 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($48 to $93) are available via National Theatre’s website.