American Idiot explores life’s downfalls

American Idiot, playing through April 22 at Ahmanson Theatre, has the chance to be this generation’s RENT.

Contemporary theater · Scott J. Campbell (left), Van Hughes (center) and Jake Epstein (right) star in the Ahmanson’s production of American Idiot as troubled young men struggling to keep it together. - Photo courtesy of Doug Hamilton

Based on Green Day’s 2004 album of the same name, American Idiot tells a story of complete disillusionment in the face of war, media influence and the unknown from the perspective of three friends as they drift apart in self-exploration.

Johnny (Van Hughes, reprising the role from Broadway) runs away from home and succumbs to drugs; Will (Jake Epstein) stays home with his pregnant girlfriend; and Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) heads to the military and gets shipped off to war.

American Idiot’s dynamic set allows the three stories to be told simultaneously within the same space. Will remains on the couch, presumably in his parent’s basement, at the left of the stage for almost the entire production. His constant presence highlights the sense of helplessness in his own life and the inability to motivate himself to move forward. Tunny’s wartime narrative takes place to the right of the stage, with battle and hospital scenes depicted through simple, aggressive choreography. Johnny and his girlfriend Whatsername (Gabrielle McClinton) take center stage in a raunchy lust-turned-love relationship.

The versatile execution of the lyrics, with single lines of songs broken up into conversations between characters, is also especially helpful in the show; the repetition of certain lyrics from different perspectives allows the audience to more fully understand the context of the play.

It’s a brilliant move: The line “Nobody likes you / Everyone left you / They’re all out without you / Having fun” means something entirely different coming from a shopaholic that can barely stand under the weight of her shopping bags than from Will sitting on a couch, alone, wondering how his life turned out so hopelessly.

Similarly, “There’s nothing wrong with me / This is how I’m supposed to be” in “Jesus of Suburbia” is first an in-your-face rally against the status quo; later, as Johnny is contemplating his heroin addiction and Will is drunk in despair from his shattered love life, the lyrics read as a poignant coping mechanism.

If there is a weak link of the show, it’s Joshua Kobak as St. Jimmy — Johnny’s Fight Club-esque drug-bending, alcoholic alter-ego — but filling the shoes of Green Day’s lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong is no easy task. He plays the persona well but takes too many numbers to fully harness his vocal performance.

It’s always risky to alter the arrangement of a favorite song, but American Idiot proves that taking a chance can exceed any and all expectations, as with “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” The number incorporates string instruments instead of a traditional background chorus and provides an entirely new, completely unexpected vibe to the song. It’s a wonderful portrayal of internal struggle in an open, honest format, and you can’t help but want to sing along.

One of the lesser-known songs, “Give Me Novacaine,” is also one of the show’s highlights. With Epstein’s falsetto mixing beautifully with his acoustic guitar, the song is hauntingly beautiful as Tunny and his fellow soldiers experience the hardships of war; sharp choreography and the presence of Will as he falls deeper into depression  across the stage both work well with the song.

And in a captivating moment near the end of the show, the three main characters assess their lives through the song “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” Hughes’ melodic talent shines through as the three cast members guide the song along with their acoustic guitars. It’s a moment that truly lets the audience appreciate the interwoven contexts of the characters and the raw emotion of a generation that the original source material captured.

American Idiot is no ordinary musical. To someone who isn’t familiar with the original Green Day album, the show can be difficult to feel connected to, but that’s only temporary. By the third song, “Holiday,” viewers will be brought into the world and devil-may-care attitude of the characters, complete with profanity, graphic portrayals of sexuality, pervasive drug use and choreography that emphasizes aggression and flipping people off right in their face.

For fans of the original album, the show only improves upon the original source material. From arrangement changes to three different storylines entangled within the same song book, American Idiot takes the listening experience of 2004 and transplants it into a multi-sensual experience that brilliantly flaunts increased contemporary relevance and a newfound energy.

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