Green Day screamed an angry scream almost a decade ago, and the power-pop opera "American Idiot" burst forth, giving voice to like-minded antiestablishment rebels. The band's songwriter and frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong, had emerged from the punk scene with rage and angst and a multiplatinum hit, followed up in 2009 by "21st Century Breakdown." It was around that time that destiny took an odd turn -- toward the East Coast. He began hobnobbing with another rebel, Michael Mayer, the director of Tony-winning "Spring Awakening," a musical that threw tradition out the stage door and attracted young audiences to the theater.
A Broadway "American Idiot" was born of the pairing, as if the teenage survivors of "Spring Awakening" had skipped a couple of centuries and emerged in a post-9/11 haze of uncorked energy. Let loose from the friendly confines of the New York stage, the national touring company at Heinz Hall provides a jolt rarely seen inside the home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
"American Idiot" challenges the art form with Tony-winning set and lighting design that never rest -- walls dotted with relentless monitors, pulsating light and projections combine with the energetic, chaotic ensemble choreography so that at times every inch of the stage comes alive with movement. The show comes in at 90 minutes without intermission, packing two dozen Green Day songs and in-your-face profanity, sex and drug use. In the process, oppressive suburbs, soul-sucking cities and wages of war take it on the chin. Friendship and love are the things that transcend the idiot stuff that wants to drag you down.
The loose thread of plot by the Armstrong-Mayer co-writing team finds three slacker friends who could be right out of a "Wayne's World" skit if they didn't traffic in f-bombs and booze. There's no slacking on vulgarity for the sake of the Pittsburgh audience vs. New York audiences. With very few exceptions, this is the show that was on Broadway for a year, April 2010-11, and was nominated for three Tonys, including best musical.
If you're easily offended by simulated scenes of sex acts and drug use, if you have little tolerance for profanity, if you have an image of what musical theater should be, you may be like the couple in my row who left after 15 minutes. (My hope is they spotted empty seats with a better view.) If you're a fan of Green Day's music or are open to an experience that will stretch your expectations of what theater can be, it's time to meet Johnny, Will and Tunney.
As the clueless Johnny, Alex Nee is the rebel without a cause who flees his mother and stepfather with equally clueless Tunney (Thomas Hettrick). Johnny heads to the cityscape of the "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and finds himself divided by love and drugs -- he's lured into shooting up by the charismatic St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders more devilish cartoon than menacing), and he's lovestruck by an alluring woman who should be out of his league, "but she thinks I'm cute."
Mr. Nee offers up glimpses of Johnny's hopeless romantic side and has the vocal range, from sweet falsetto to uninhibited rocker, to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Armstrong and Broadway star John Gallagher Jr. He accompanies himself on guitar, he hurls his body into Steven Hoggett's demanding choreography and acts recklessly with aplomb. His pal Will (Casey O'Farrell) is left behind and rooted to the couch by obligation and regret, while Tunney is lured to another calling: the military. He marches off to war in a trance, following the charismatic "Favorite Son" (the buff Jared Young). Tunney's experiences culminate in one of the coolest sequences in "American Idiot," a dream scene in which he floats above his hospital bed in a dance with "Extraordinary Girl" Jenna Rubaii.
As a trio, the guys can rock out with the energetic ensemble on anthems such as "American Idiot" and "Holiday," or take it down a few dozen notches for the wrenching "Wake Me up When September Ends."
The women in the production sparkle, and not just when they're wearing sequins. Alyssa DiPalma as Whatsername and Kennedy Caughell as Will's baby mama, Heather, are able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, even if it means leaving the men they love behind. "21 Guns" becomes a tribute to girl power as they appeal to their men to "Lay down your arms."
The tales of connections made and lost play out in a wasteland-playground. Vertical scaffolding serves as a jungle gym for the boys' antics, and then is turned over -- with Mr. Nee holding on tight -- to represent a bus. When the show opens, remember to look up for an unexpected entrance. When it closes, remember to wait for the curtain to rise again, because, like a Green Day concert, an encore awaits.
"American Idiot" is a bonus show on the PNC Broadway Across America -- Pittsburgh schedule, sandwiched between traditional musicals "Sister Act" and "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." Those shows offer over-the-top comedy and plenty of glitz while moving to a disco beat; gritty "American Idiot" rolls along like a freight train of rage and chaos. It's good to know the expansive theater world makes room for both.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960; on Twitter at @SEberson_pg. First Published February 20, 2013 8:00 PM