Punk is dead; 'American Idiot' finds its still-beating heart

Punk is dead; 'American Idiot' finds its still-beating heart
Photo by Doug Hamilton

I have a feeling that the teenage, gutter-punk Billie Joe Armstrong would want to give a pair of middle fingers to what the mature Billie Joe Armstrong has done with punk rock in the stage version of American Idiot. And I think the teenage, suburban-punk me would probably have sneered and given the bird as well. 

Of course, neither I nor Billie Joe Armstrong are 17 anymore, which is one of key points in American Idiot, which takes Green Day's epic 2004 concept album and molds it into a thrilling and even moving stage creation, playing this week at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis.

There's a story running through the 21-song score, punctuated by short bits of dialogue. It mainly follows a trio of lost, punk-rocking friends whose lives go off in different directions through the 90-minute show. There are side trips into drug addiction, modern-day war, and the general ennui that is a part of everyday life in the modern media-saturated world.

For the first chunk of the show, it's pretty much a nicely performed run through of the album. There are lots of nice Broadway voices, well-choreographed pieces, and the occasional sly allusion to punk rock's past ("God told me to skin you alive," says one of our heroes, quoting the Dead Kennedys' infamous opening to "I Kill Children").

Then, about midway through, it snaps into shape with "Extraordinary Girl," which is presented as an aerial ballet between injured soldier Tunny and a hallucination of his nurse and eventual lover. As they fly and twirl through the air, all of the strobe lights and plasma TVs that dot the stage fade into the background, and we are given a real character on a real journey to follow.

Tunny's friend in the city isn't doing much better. Johnny gets hooked on heroin, losing his girl, and, worst of all, has to get a desk job. Meanwhile, third friend Will is glued to his couch back in suburbia, content to watch his life pass by in an alcoholic and pot-smoke haze.

Van Hughes as Johnny and Jousha Kobak as the destructive spirit-of-punk-rock St. Jimmy lead a solid cast. The main characters don't get a lot of opportunities to craft their characters, but Hughes manages to add a some shades to what could just be a rebel-by-numbers part. Kobak's role is all surface and flash, as I think it is meant to be, and his arresting, Mephisto-like looks certainly help to sell the part.

By the musical's end, they've all managed to go somewhere. They are no longer purely the brash, angry punk rockers we saw at the beginning of the play, but characters on a journey. They still aren't exactly sure where that will take them, but at least they know there's a road.


American Idiot
Through Sunday
Orpheum Theatre
910 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis
For tickets and info, call 612.339.7007 or visit online

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