Anthem to angst

Scene from the touring production of "American Idiot" (Photo: Doug Hamilton)

I was steeped in angst as a teen. Still, the angst in “Green Day’s American Idiot” feels a tad over the top. I attended the opening night performance at ASU Gammage, then called my daughter Lizabeth on the drive home to compare notes because she saw the show some time ago on Broadway.

“You’ve never had that kind of angst,” she told me. “That’s true,” I replied, “I’ve never shot heroine.” I’m old enough now that I don’t even remember whether “shoot” is the right word for it. Parents eager to take their kids to “American Idiot” take note — it’s full of foul language, simulated sex and drug use, and other mature themes like suicide. Not necessarily a reason not to see it, just something to know before you go.

There aren’t a lot of musicals out there with the “American Idiot” vibe, so it’s an important notch to have in your theater belt. Expect lots of loud music and pounding movement, and brush up on the lyrics before you go since they’re hard to fathom on some of the ensemble numbers. Or just wing it — it’s plenty possible to get the gist of the show without understanding every word.

Kids leave home. Some try drink and drugs. Some enlist in the military. Some have sex, and some have babies. Some get jobs, but lament their 9 to 5 existence. All are bored, and none find fulfillment. Kids return home. Some with war wounds. Some with track marks. Some with broken hearts. One even admits near the end of the musical that his mother was right — though my daughter says she never heard that line. There’s much in “American Idiot” that reads differently depending on your age and A.Q. (angst quotient).

My own favorite scenes take the noise down a notch with soulful solos accompanied by acoustic guitar. Without these interludes, the high volume existential head banging takes on a surprising sameness — as if you’re watching a game of show and tell, but realize before too long that everyone’s brought the same thing to share.

I was thankful I had Lizabeth to translate, since I’d have mistaken all those hoodies in “Know Your Enemy” for a nod to America’s most visible arrest of late without her assuring me that they were there on Broadway too. She also made sense of my least favorite scene — featuring a slick general surrounded by dancing girls in sparkling shift dresses. I was fonder by far of the show’s choreography, thinking how much thinner I’d be if there was an “American Idiot” workout. But we agreed the aerial work was wonderful.

It’s hip these days to include digital projections in theater works, but “American Idiot” still does it best with a backdrop dotted with television-like screens and digital images of cityscapes and such rolling across it. The musical opens with three main set pieces — a sofa, a recliner and a bed built for two. Along the way there’s a tower that’s transformed into transportation, a shifting set of tall metal stairs (complete with cellist underneath them), a shopping cart that gets hoisted skyward and a row of beds for wounded warriors whose IVs drop from overhead.

When one of the show’s characters quips that “nobody seems to agree on anything these days,” you wonder how they knew all those years ago to channel events of the current election cycle. Though “American Idiot” explores the lives of youth, it’s safe to say nowadays that idiots exist at every age and stage. It’s just that musical versions of midlife crises aren’t nearly as much fun.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn more about “American Idiot” and other ASU Gammage offerings (and be sure you stay until the curtain call ends, or you’ll miss a little something that’s worth waiting for).

Coming up: Hangin’ with Haring

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