‘American Idiot’ gets smart, lively treatment on Kauffman Center stage

01/12/2014 8:11 AM

01/12/2014 9:35 PM

The musical “American Idiot” opens with a call to arms. The show’s protagonist, Johnny, cries, “Let’s start a war,” and the wall of media behind him, including several TV screens, lets the audience know, in general terms, against whom war will be waged.

The unmistakable voice of Ryan Seacrest, host of the very mainstream TV reality show “American Idol,” is heard announcing the start of his show. But he is interrupted. Instead, the audience hears: “This is ‘American Idiot,’ ” and the 16-member cast of the touring production bursts into the title track of the Green Day album that is the foundation of this 90-minute show.

Saturday night, an audience of nearly 1,800 attended the first of three presentations of “American Idiot” at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Two others were scheduled Sunday afternoon and evening.

The rock opera is based on the album released in 2004 by the punk band Green Day. It tells the story of Johnny and a loose confederation of friends and acquaintances, including his best buddies Will and Tunny, and how they attempt to escape the mainstream doldrums of dead-end suburbia.

The show is rife with energy but little dialogue. The rare bits of that were humorous or snide, like this from Johnny, as he is about to escape suburbia for some urban adventure: “I held up my local convenience store to get a bus ticket. Actually, I stole the money from my mom’s dresser. Actually, she lent me the cash.”

Otherwise, “American Idiot” the musical is more like a string of choreographed live-video performances — nearly two dozen songs depicted by actors/dancers backed by a live band.

The loose narrative follows Johnny, Will and Tunny, who conspire to bolt the ’burbs but endure different fates. Johnny, played by Jared Nepute, falls into relationships with a woman (Olivia Puckett) and hard drugs. Will (Casey O’Farrell) ends up staying home with his pregnant girlfriend. And Tunny (Dan Tracy) joins the military, gets shipped overseas and comes home minus a limb. Ultimately, they all end up together, reunited, home again.

What drives this show, however, is the music and the performances by the enthusiastic company of singers and dancers. “American Idiot” the album is a collection of fierce and invigorating punk anthems with a few acoustic ballads thrown in for relief. In the music-theater setting, the songs lose some of their punk grit but none of their vigor.

The show isn’t an all-family affair. There is plenty of profanity, lots of drug allusions and some simulated sex, but for the most part the show exudes the combined spirits of “Fame,” “Grease” and “West Side Story” without the story.

The song list includes the entire “American Idiot” album — the title track, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” were the three big highlights — plus songs from its follow-up, “21st Century Breakdown.”

Anyone more than casually familiar with either of those records will appreciate the dynamic presentation of the songs within the theatrical context. After a curtain call, the cast and a band member strapped on acoustic guitars and serenaded the crowd with “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” from Green Day’s “Nimrod” album.

That made for a quaint ending, but “American Idiot” the musical wasn’t necessarily unpredictable or a life-defining moment. It was, however, a lively reminder of the need to escape our traps or confinements. Or at least to try to.

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