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April 4, 2013

A smart show for 'Idiots'

Punk rock musical delivers powerful chords, commentary

INDIANAPOLIS — Since the advent of rock ’n’ roll, teenagers have stood in front of their bedroom mirrors turning wide, violent windmills on invisible guitars. “American Idiot” is like that, only choreographed and with jazz hands.

Adapted from the smash 2004 punk album by Green Day, the musical tells — or rather, screams — of love, anger and youth in revolt against a hyper-patriotic, post-9/11 world. That’s evident from the first overdriven guitar chord at Butler University’s Clowes Memorial Hall, where Broadway Across America’s “Idiot” opened Tuesday night.

Directed by Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” “A View from the Bridge”), the rock-star cast powers through track after track of the blockbuster album, whose lyrics and sneering, angsty defiance are the raw essence of Green Day front-man Billie Joe Armstrong.

Those tracks, along with some from the band’s 2009 release, “21st Century Breakdown,” back the divergent stories of three friends desperate to reinvent themselves and fly a big middle finger in the face of American suburbia.

But the characters we meet at the show’s open are too young to understand their emotions, none the less articulate them, which lights the fuse on a stomping, head-banging and very rock-and-roll temper tantrum set to the album’s title track, “American Idiot.”  

“Don’t want to be an American idiot,” screams the ensemble, backed by glowing LCD American flags and an on-stage band, directed by Evan Jay Newman (“Lovers,” “Runaway 69”). They air-guitar, fist-pump and scissor-kick around the stage, pelting the audience with accusations of propaganda, paranoia and — gasp! — media control. Yeah, sorry about that.

But what teen’s problems can’t be solved by running away from home? So, our rebellious youths pack up their stickered guitar cases and hit the road. That is, aside from Tunny (Thomas Hettrick), who’s stopped by an unexpected announcement from his girlfriend (Kennedy Caughell). Congratulations Tunny, it’s a bouncing baby ball-and-chain!

It’s only the first of the more grown-up issues “Idiot” tackles. Cue the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.

“I held up a local convenience store to get a bus ticket,” says Johnny, played brilliantly by Alex Nee (“Rent,” “The Who’s Tommy”), whose ’90s-era rage is a near carbon-copy of Billie Joe, himself,

Will, solidly acted by Casey O’Farrell (“Footloose,” “Rent”), isn’t buying it.

Johnny concedes: “Actually I stole the money from my mom’s dresser.”

Nope.

“Actually she lent me the cash,” Johnny says, defeated, before heading for the big city in a stunning, dizzying blur of kaleidoscopic lighting and Armstrong’s powerful anthems — a trademark of “Idiot’s” aesthetic genius.

Equally as genius is the cast, who seamlessly blend aggressive, charged lyrics with raw emotion. The audience alternately laughs, judges and empathizes with Johnny, as he struggles with his newly-acquired drug addiction and a lusty relationship with girl called Whatsername (played with a Pat Benatar-style angst by Alyssa DiPalma of “Realm of the Unreal”). And with Will, who struggles between two conflicting identities after he joins the “enemy” as a pawn of the U.S. military machine.

Green Day’s “American Idiot” dropped in 2004, but both the album and musical’s evocative stories of rebellion, self-examination and discovery are eternal. A must for anyone who loves rock ’n’ roll, has ever felt the pangs of youth, or who is or ever wanted to be an “Idiot.”

Find Baylee Pulliam on Facebook and @BayleeNPulliam on Twitter, or call 648-4250.

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