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American Idiot

The pop-punk rock opera's story is thin, but is carried by a very talented ensemble

St. Jimmy and Johnny address American Idiot’s stellar ensemble. Photo credit: Tim Johnston

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There's a lot to like in American Idiot, the Tony-winning adaptation of Green Day's mega-hit concept album of the same name, even for people (like myself) who might charitably describe themselves as indifferent to the band. Still, this is a musical that succeeds only inasmuch as the songs and the performances do; the plot, such as it is, is so generic that one could make an argument that it's a parody of boy-in-the-big-city stories. Bravado is what's needed to carry the show across the finish line, and the huge cast of talented performers in Lakewood Playhouse's production of the pop-punk rock opera are thankfully up to the task.

American Idiot's plot explores no themes or events that haven't been depicted with more nuance elsewhere -- everything from Tommy to The Wall to Rent to Across the Universe. The story: in the months following 9/11, Johnny, Will and Tunny (Mark Alford, Cooper Harris-Turner and Tony Williams, respectively) are three disillusioned young men sleep-walking through life in their small hometown. Johnny and Tunny try to make it in the big city, while Will gets stuck behind after his girlfriend gets pregnant. Tunny joins the military, seemingly because he just doesn't know what else to do with himself, while Johnny gets seduced by distractions like drugs and self-indulgent poetry.

Besides the occasional short break to hear Johnny write an inane journal entry, the show is entirely sung-through, packed with music from Green Day, which is both a strength and a weakness. It's not much of a secret that Billie Joe Armstrong -- frontman and songwriter for Green Day, as well as book-writer for this musical -- has never been much of a lyricist, trading time with pat, on-the-nose observations and faux-deep turns of phrase. Some of the lines in American Idiot land with a clunk, but Green Day do have a knack for melody, so it's easy to let the music wash over you. Thanks to headset mics, a dialed-in band, and smart musical direction from Deborah Joe Armstrong (no relation), this is the best-sounding musical I've seen at Lakewood Playhouse.

Knockout numbers like the melancholy "Are We the Waiting," "Holiday's" raucous sendup of jingoism, and the drug-addled "Know Your Enemy" are highlights in a show that never stops moving. As the Billie Joe Armstrong analog Johnny, Alford is reliably magnetic, and Harris-Turner and Williams make meals of their more emotional songs. Dani Hobbs, Kiana Norman-Slack, and Ashley Roy are wonderful as the women in the male leads' lives. (Only two of those female characters are granted names, with one literally called Whatsername.) In a bit of gender-blind casting, though, Shannon Burch gets a juicy role as messianic drug-dealer St. Jimmy, a part typically cast as a man.

The show's poseur punk aesthetic is a little silly, but visually dynamic, and totally befitting Green Day's whole trendy punk vibe. As for what American Idiot is trying to say, it's nothing that revelatory, but I think the title gets it right: at the end, our heroes are young, dumb and come away having learned very little.

American Idiot, 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, Pay What You Can Thursday, Jan. 11 and 18 through Jan. 28, $25-$30, Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd. SW, 253.588.0042, lakewoodplayhouse.org

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