The audience after the show said a lot about the experience of “American Idiot,” the hit Broadway musical based on the music of pop-punk band Green Day. Young kids dressed in replica grunge gear (emblazoned with the show’s logo) mixed with dolled-up theater kids and older audience members in stuffier business-casual attire. Most of those in attendance would be perfectly comfortable at just about any musical; few would fit in at a real punk rock show.
While it’s far grimier than most other shows that grace the Orpheum Theatre’s stage, “American Idiot” is not a true punk experience but rather a candy-coated approximation, the 1990s hardcore scene by way of “Glee.” Then again, Green Day’s music always veered closer to the pop side of the “pop-punk” spectrum than the punk. That is not to say that it doesn’t have rough edges – the show deals candidly with sex, drugs, alienation, war and depression, with plenty of f-bombs sprinkled in for good measure. Nor is that to say that Green Day and “American Idiot” deserve scorn for selling out to “The Man.” It may not be true punk, but “American Idiot” is still a scrappy, fast-paced merger of rock show and musical.
With only minimal dialogue between songs, “American Idiot” doesn’t offer the performers much chance to develop characters or build much of a plot. Nevertheless, the narrative quality of the songs does a great job of carving out a portrait of a time, the jumbled, confusing era after the attacks of Sept. 11. The three primary characters yearn to leave their suburban homes for the un-named big city (although performers slyly don 400 Bar t-shirts and Twins sweatshirts), only to find themselves mired in drugs, apathy and war. It seems that each of the three principles will come to a rather bleak end, only to discover some hint of salvation at the end of the show’s brisk 90-minute run time.
Built primarily around Green Day’s acclaimed 2004 comeback album “American Idiot” with a handful of songs from other albums, “American Idiot” is packed with songs that were well-known even before the show’s Broadway debut, such as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “21 Guns,” “Holiday” and several others. The recognizable nature of the songs helps make “American Idiot” an approachable show, despite the aforementioned swearing and adult content. The cast does an admirable job approximating the sound and attitude of Green Day vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong (who owns a house in St. Paul – maybe he’ll make a surprise appearance?). They never quite nail it, but come darn close.
During the first quarter of the show, the music tended to drown out the vocals, but that issue seemed to clear up as the show progressed. There is a lot of chaos on stage during “American Idiot” – the apartment face backdrop is dotted with television screens, chunks of scaffolding detach and move around the stage during the show and at times characters literally fly through the air. But that’s part of the point. The early 21st century was (and still is) a chaotic time, often hard to follow or to quickly digest. “American Idiot” is much the same, but whether you catch every last word or dance move, by the end of the show you’ll certainly have absorbed its energy.
"American Idiot" plays through Sunday, Feb. at the Orpheum Theatre. For ticket pricing and availability, visit HennepinTheatreTrust.org.