Pop music converted into musical fare is nothing new. Mamma Mia recast the songs of ABBA into a charming tale (avoid the movie at all costs, though!); Movin' Out combined the music of Billy Joel with the dance of Twyla Tharp; and the upcoming Rock of Ages (soon to be a movie with Tom Cruise) is a parade of hair metal tunes. But unlike those "jukebox musicals" which picked and chose from entire catalogs, American Idiot hews closely to its pseudeo-concept album roots and sticks to that album with a handful of additional material from the band's 2009 album, 21st Century Breakdown. While the tight focus could be viewed as a strength, it actually undercuts the overall effect.
There is very little in the way of story or characters in the show, preferring to just kick out one jam after another with interstitial bits of profane banter from main man/Billie Joe Armstrong avatar, Johnny. He and his pals, Will and Tunny, are bored of their empty life in Jingletown, USA (a fictitious suburb, I suspect) and decide to strike out into the world. When Will's girlfriend comes up pregnant, he stays with her while Johnny and Tunny leave town only to end up in their own respective worlds of hurt. Without spoiling what little "story" there is, suffice to say that having an imaginary heroin friend named St. Jimmy and joining the military during the George W. Bush years don't work out so well. (In case you miss the point, they flash lots of unflattering images of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld on the three dozen video screens tiling the back of the set. Thanks for clearing that up for us, guys.)
Where American Idiot as a show falls short is that it's not really a musical with a narrative to string along the songs. As a result, we don't really get to know about and thus care for the trio. Yeah, life kinda sucks, but it's all superficial. The women in Johnny and Tully's lives are such abstract shadows, they don't merit proper names - they're called Whatsername and Extraordinary Girl; the former performed by Gabrielle McClinton with fire and earthy sexiness. It also merits mention that the cast has a realistic physical look in that they're shorter and heavier than the usual genetic freaks of perfection you see in shows.
In breaking the lead vocals across multiple characters, the focus of the songs suffers as well. While Williams may have created a workable song cycle, the thin book (co-written by him and director Michael Mayer) means that American Idiot comes off more like a stage interpretation of an album than a story told in song. It's too bad that they chose to not dip into Green Day's ocean-deep back catalog of material; when Will is wasting his life at home on the couch drinking bong water, wouldn't "Longview" have been perfect accompaniment? I think so, too.
What does work - and surprisingly well - are the songs in their blown-up Broadway arrangements. Adding a genre twist can be risky - ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I give you that album Metallica did with Michael Kamen's orchestral Cheez-Whiz poured all over it - but instead of sounding goofy like an Up With People show, the harmonies build on Williams' rock-solid tunes to lend them a rich scope. The title track (see the video below), "21 Guns", and "Wake Me When September Ends" are just a few of the standouts. If you've got Spotify, definitely give the cast album a spin.
While the spirited cast performs with exuberance and the music is terrific, ultimately it's hard to recommend plunking down the $45-$75 per ticket American Idiot is charging. It's only 95 minutes long and while there are moments when it literally soars on wires into the rafters, there's just not quite enough there there to shell out that much, other than perhaps for hardcore Green Day fans.