March 8, 2013

Green Day's 'American Idiot:' Rock of sages

Musical could lift you out of your comfort zone and onto your feet.

Let me catch my breath.

I have just spent 95 minutes with my head snapping back and forth like a windsock in a typhoon, my brain flooded with images visual and aural, my ears assaulted by walls of sound and tickled by the twang of one acoustic guitar, my eyes blinded by a bank of lights yet opened to the touring wonder that is “American Idiot.”

Or “Green Day’s American Idiot,” to give the musical its full name. (As if there were others anything like this one.) You have two days to join me in my state of bedazed intoxication, before the show packs up. The idea that the indefatigable cast will do this four times in Charlotte over the next 48 hours boggles the mind.

Before I saw “Idiot,” I wondered who the title character might be. I listened to the original cast album and read the lyrics and still wondered. (If you don’t know the piece, dig up those lyrics somewhere. It’s no reflection on the cast’s diction or the sound mix in Belk Theater to say that you won’t be able to understand them all.)

Was the collective idiot suburban society, clogged with gray-minded conformists who stifle creativity? Was it America itself, wasting lives in wars and feeding its young people false or unachievable dreams?

The answer is no. It referred to the protagonist of Green Day’s top-ranked 2004 album, an unemployed stay-at-home who thinks of himself as Jesus of Suburbia – ah, a crucified slacker! – and rants about his stultifying life in the ’burbs, though he has to borrow bus fare from his mom to leave. (And then curses her for it!)

His painful journey to self-awareness makes up the bulk of the story. But Johnny (Alex Nee) is no longer alone: His two fellow whiners, Will (Casey O’Farrell) and Tunny (Thomas Hettrick) moan along with him and plan to set out for musical fame in the city.

Will gets sidelined by the pregnancy of his girlfriend, Heather (Kennedy Caughell, whom you may have seen in CPCC Summer Theatre’s “Into the Woods” three years ago). Tunny gets bewitched by a military recruiter, heads for the Middle East and meets an extraordinary girl called The Extraordinary Girl (Jenna Rubaii). Johnny stays in the city, succumbing to the drugs of St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders) and the rough attractions of Whatsername (Alyssa DiPalma).

They mature, but at a cost higher than most musicals ask their characters to pay. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, who wrote the lyrics and did the book with director Michael Mayer, allows only a ray of optimism: Self-knowledge is the first step to self-improvement.

The ensemble cast never lets up for an instant, and the chorus (which also takes small solo roles) moves set pieces around with the frenzied precision of a NASCAR pit crew changing a tire. The six-piece band fills the Belk with sound that rings in the ears afterward. (That’s a compliment.) At the curtain call, everyone onstage except the drummer plays, or seems to play, acoustic guitars.

Blumenthal Performing Arts has arranged seating with cabaret tables down front. The very first row has been reserved for student rush tickets, perhaps in the belief that only a student will be able to stand this sonic blast for an hour and a half without intermission. There’s a special bonus for that hardy few: At the end of the show, the drummer hands two of them his used sticks.

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