"Green Day's American Idiot" kicked off a two-night run at the University at Buffalo's Center for the Art's Mainstage Theatre on Saturday. The full house was treated to an epic tale told in the parlance of punk rock and power-ballads, with brilliantly violent choreography, shimmering live sound, and standout performances, particularly from lead Alex Nee.
The show - based on the work of Californian punk band Green Day and, in particular, that band's protest-fueled rock-opera "American Idiot" - is set in the George W. Bush years and follows the path of three late-teen friends as they struggle to find meaning amid suburban ennui and urban despair. The storyline, from the book based on the lyrics of Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, with the help of director Michael Mayer, follows the classic "tramps like us were born to run" theme.
Nee's Johnny - the Billy Joe Armstrong figure, in essence - is a young man filled with rage, the product of a broken home and an even more badly damaged culture. Music offers him his only hope amid a barrage of cultural images that lead to a confused disenfranchisement. (Televisions, spread across the stage and into the urban punk rock nightclub-style scaffolding, display images ranging from Bush golfing, to bombs exploding in the Middle East, to home shopping networks, the subtext being that all of this cultural noise is sound and fury.)
Johnny's friends Tunny (Thomas Hettrick) and Will (Casey O'Farrell) hatch a plan, while wasting their days scoring beers at the 7-Eleven and getting sloshed in front of the television, to head for the big city and pursue their dreams. They scam bus tickets and blow town with all the naïve conviction of youth. Will, however, never makes it that far, having impregnated his girlfriend.
It's not hard to see what's coming: Reality sets in quick. Tunny gets depressed, becomes withdrawn and decides to join the Army; Johnny falls hard for alterna-babe "Whatsername" (Alyssa DiPalma) and then falls equally hard for the heroin that St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders, in a creepily beautiful performance) dangles before him. Back home in suburbia, Will becomes estranged from his girlfriend and baby, flunks the fatherhood test and spends his days on the couch with beers, a bong and a television for company.
"American Idiot" details the difficulty of transitioning from young adulthood into adulthood in the middle of a confusing cultural milieu. More significantly, the play, like the album, ponders the possibility of making it to adulthood with dreams intact. Tunny ends up with his leg blown off in an overseas war he seemingly does not understand. Will can't seem to man up. Johnny, meanwhile, is doing a lot more heroin than he is music-making.
These are the lost kids, the ones exiled from the "American Dream," whatever such a notion might actually represent in the 21st century.
Props must indeed go to choreographer Steven Hoggett, who keeps the action lively and flamboyant with cliché-free movement by the ensemble. The play is dazzling to behold, from Christine Jones' urban-apocalypse set design to the on-stage band, under the direction of orchestrator and arranger Tom Kitt.
But it is certainly Nee who steals the show, so capably does he embody that angst-ridden passion and contradictory nature of the confused but defiant Johnny. Nee looks an awful lot like Billie Joe Armstrong, too, which doesn't hurt. His performance Saturday was a riveting one, and particularly so during the finale, when we realize that "American Idiot" will offer no happy, easy, cheesy closure; rather, the characters end up back home where they began, possibility still available to them but, in 21st century America, certainly not guaranteed.
Of course, the songs themselves are what made such a vibrant theatrical interpretation possible. Like Pete Townshend and the Who before them, Armstrong and Green Day have perfectly captured the confused zeitgeist of their age. "American Idiot" continues at UB's Center for the Arts at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.