TAMPA — If you look beyond the onstage sex and bongwater guzzling and guttural profanity and heroin needles, American Idiot the musical is a sweet time at the theater. No, really, it is — but come to think of it, you might want to look beyond the robust tighty-whitie flaunting, too.
Taut, angsty and filled with throbbing heart, on Friday the show based on Green Day's 2004 Grammy-winning album unveiled like one of the Berkeley trio's punk anthems, ferocious but vulnerable. I'm not sure the confines of Morsani Hall at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts have seen such a slamdance. And yet there was also great warmth in the 90-minute, no-intermission snapshot of a modern teenage wasteland. The play's run ends today with two shows; prepare to be challenged but ultimately entertained, tighty-whities and all.
Led by gnomish snot-noser Billie Joe Armstrong, Green Day originally released the American Idiot LP in 2004 as a conceptual response to growing up angry during the Bush administration — or whenever American Idol, the play's not-so-subtle "reality TV" namesake, overtook the country. The album is brilliant, catchy, tonally adventurous; songs such as Holiday, Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Wake Me Up When September Ends were smart, thoughtful hits that acted as antidote to mass Britneyfication.
But truth be told, American Idiot was also a bit of an idea mess, as the band tried to tackle the media and the military and love and death and then some. So Armstrong, who along with writing the album co-wrote the musical's book, has wisely streamlined the narrative. Johnny, Will and Tunny are three drinking, smoking layabouts in suburbia dreaming of a better life, "in a land of make believe that don't believe in me." It gives nothing away to say their stories, intertwined with the track-for-track listing of the original album (plus a few other cuts), take them on disparate paths, all doused in tragedy.
Kudos to scenic designer Christine Jones, who won a 2010 Tony Award for her work on American Idiot. While accommodating an absolutely blazing six-piece onstage rock band — what an album to rip every night! — the set morphs in small, jarring increments, from a stoner's-paradise basement to grimy city apartment to military hospital — with a constant array of TV sets tucked everywhere and flashing incendiary rhetoric and pictures of Twinkies. There's also a darkly comic running gag as Will (played with woe-is-me charm by Casey O'Farrell) — well, let's just say poor Will spends a lot of time on a couch.
On Friday, understudy Brandon Kalm played Johnny, who dreams of being a rock star in the city but ultimately gets seduced by much stronger things, including drugs and a girl, Whatsername (Alyssa DiPalma). The two actors shared sizzling chemistry (yikes!) and solid elastic voices, although it should be noted that everyone here pretty much delivers the songs like someone from Rent doing a Billie Joe Armstrong impression. Which is not such a bad thing, but let it be known: This is Broadway punk.
If there was a disappointment, it was Trent Saunders as St. Jimmy, who represents Johnny's bad-boy id, the mohawked devil on his shoulder. Saunders strikes a commanding presence, and yet his voice lacked the necessary range for a character so wicked and over-the-top, so capable of sin and explosions. I wanted that guy to wail almighty, and he just never uncorked it.
That said, you can't take your eyes off Saunders, especially during the song Know Your Enemy, a surprise inclusion from Green Day's 2009 album 21st Century Breakdown. Here, the accosting number involves a heroin needle, and man, it packs punch. So does Extraordinary Girl, during which Tunny (a heartbreaking Thomas Hettrick), hallucinates a savior to soothe his pain. The crowd gasped when the lovely song, and the stage, revealed a poetic, high-flying twist.
Of course, the reason Green Day has become one of the biggest bands on the planet is because they speak to more than just ticked-off youth; they speak to everyone. And that's exactly who erupted for a couple of thunderous standing ovations on Friday night. You might be offended one minute, but just wait for the next: It'll smash your heart.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.