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‘American Idiot’ a powerful rock opera, despite lack of context

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In 2004, the American punk rock band Green Day released an album in the tradition of “Tommy” by The Who. In other words, it was a rock opera. The album was inspired by the disgust the band members felt about the Iraq War and, in particular, the collusion of the media. The album “American Idiot” was a huge hit, and the musical theater production, essentially a staged version of the album, with the addition of a few new songs, opened in New York in 2010.

“American Idiot” is currently playing at Musical Theatre Southwest in a high-voltage performance skillfully directed by Laura Nuzum, who also directed the rock musical “Rock of Ages” last year at MTS.

Because “American Idiot” is a rock opera, there is virtually no spoken dialogue (with the exception of a line or two here and there). The entire production is sung, and the story is not entirely coherent – mostly because lots of the lyrics are garbled, although you will get the broad outline.

The plot revolves around the lives of three confused young men. In the hope of starting anew, two leave home while the third stays behind with his pregnant girlfriend. Before long, one of them, Tunny, is seduced by the media into joining the military while Johnny, the central character, gets hooked on drugs, meets a girl and falls in love.

“American Idiot” has its roots in the Iraq War fever that engulfed the nation in 2003, but that is not explored in this production. Despite the use of video footage throughout the entire show, the time and place of the action is left vague. None of the iconic images from that period are used, such as then-President George W. Bush wearing a flight suit on an aircraft carrier and prematurely pronouncing “mission accomplished,” to name just one.

We get a general image of youthful anomie, see a bunch of lost youths caught up in the culture of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but have no sense of the historical moment. The power of the show would have been greater by placing the action in the period it was conceived and exploiting the powerful media imagery from that time.

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That said, the artistry of the show is nearly flawless. Musical director Aaron Howe leads an eight-piece band that is thoroughly comfortable playing punk. Especially nice was Luke Loffelmacher’s choreography – virtually the entire show is choreographed, and the ensemble carries out Loffelmacher’s movement with precision, commitment and energy.

Punk rock is a specifically anti-establishment genre, so it is unusual to find a Broadway musical rooted solidly in punk. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, as there are lots of F-bombs thrown around, shooting up of drugs, and the music is, well, punk rock – it’s loud, nasty and in your face.

That being said, my favorite number was “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” the smash single that is hardly a punk rock song. Lead actor Rico Leyva strummed an acoustic guitar center stage and sang Green Day’s signature song with feeling, although I question the choice to leave him in the dark until the rest of the cast joins him on stage for the second half of the song.

“American Idiot” is playing at Musical Theatre Southwest, 6320 Domingo NE, Albuquerque, through July 30. For reservations go to musicaltheatresw.com or call 265-9119.


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