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'American Idiot' is a loud, hard, Green Day lament

THEATER REVIEW: "American Idiot" at the Oriental Theatre ★★★½

Chris Jones

4:39 PM CST, February 8, 2012

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For all their Berkeley punk-rock bona fides — unassailable and enough to send a certain kind of ill-prepared theatergoer headed for an early exit — Green Day songs are actually filled with hope and longing. They may rail hard, loud and long against the hysteria of a paranoid country compromised and commoditized by a media monolith, but they also lament, sweetly, like romantic poets from the days of yore, about the way the innocent never seem to last.

When you add the narrative throughline of Green Day's inarguably operatic masterpiece, "American Idiot," to that crucial duality of feeling, you have material ideal for the musical theater.

That's not to say "American Idiot," which was far and away the best Broadway musical of 2010 (despite mercurial Tony voters having given that distinction to the more conventional "Memphis"), is a traditional kind of show. On the contrary. Director Michael Mayer's masterful Broadway staging wisely resisted the temptation to add a conventional book to the staging of Green Day's ambitious 2004 album with enough of an overtly operatic sweep to stand on its own, and yet inherently resistant to the cliches of the genre.

With the help of some orchestrations, and slight theatricalizations, from musical supervisor Tom Kitt, the gifted Mayer decided, instead, to helm a kind of sensory collage, a musical wash, a dreamscape. He forges characterizations sufficiently distinctive and human for the young, then or now, to recognize their own malaises, their own sense of amounting to nothing, but not so explicit that the fluidity of the musical metaphor would be compromised.

You get names — St. Jimmy, Johnny, Tunny, Will, Whatsername, Extraordinary Girl — but you do not get cheap strictures, literal vassals or manufactured scenes. You get life choices — find a girl, take drugs and party all day; or find a girl, get married and hold the kid all day; or find a cause, get a uniform and sacrifice your body all day — but you do not get overly explicit resolutions for overly distinctive individuals. "American Idiot," the musical, is as much a take on the complexities of the Green Day gestalt as anything else, and this band's narrative is about a universal feeling in a specific moment, not alien dudes prettying up some stage.

Not every solution is original. But that was the trick here that made this show, a must-see for Green Days fans, work. Unlike shows based on movies, those based on albums have to navigate more complicated waters: people usually listen to albums alone and forge their connections to the lyrics of, say, Billie Joe Armstrong, alone. The 2004 album is, as much as any musical work of the past decade, a meditation on an inner feeling, the sense that whatever you try to do, you still amount to nothing in a world filled with louder and more toxic voices.

It's also, of course, a portrait of a set of feelings — and actions — that we feel and pursue at a specific time of our life. We think they're unique — and that our lovers are unique compliments to ourselves — but we later come to see that both the feelings and the lovers were no different, really, from those others sitting around and listening to "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" or "Jesus of Suburbia," to pick a number that especially exemplifies those inestimably rich Green Day contradictions in terms.

The first national tour of this show arrived in Chicago on Tuesday night. Its very young cast is, vocally speaking, a notch below the original Broadway cast, or so it felt opening night, when it also took a while to tune the room. But this is a top-flight Equity tour, with a modified but wholly workable design, nicely stacked with several members of that fine original company. There is a formidable central performance here from Joshua Kobak, who plays St. Jimmy, and who is both a vulnerable actor and a beautiful singer to whom one could listen all night. Van Hughes (who played this role toward the end of the Broadway run) is a richly veined Johnny, once he fires up from his nihilism, and Scott J. Campbell's Tunny has notable magnitude, as he should, given all that he undergoes. There's also a notably intense performance from Gabrielle McClinton, who, with the help of the movement forged by the brilliant choreographer Steven Hoggett, flings her body into the partying role of Whatsername with just the right kind of desperation — the sort that you know will be burned out before the disc has fully spun.

It was strange to feel the rather flat audience Tuesday, when first-nighters and somewhat bemused subscribers seemed to dominate. One hopes the many Chicago Green Day fans will find (and cough up for) this show before it moves on. This is mostly for them.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Feb. 19

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Tickets: $27-$95 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com