DOC: You [kids] make this world lousy!
A perfect summation of frustration at the antics of troubled and displaced youths, no? But that’s not the wham line, though. The response is.
ACTION: We didn’t make it, Doc.
It’s a sentiment that even an era of unlimited communication can’t delete – and perhaps has only gotten stronger – as the cold war between the generations ticks on. And it’s a sentiment that the ensemble of Green Day’s American Idiot – making its Chicago regional debut with the Hypocrites – wears snugly.
A rock opera for the paranoid age, it’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. But what is “it?” Well, that’s no easy answer, but it’s a hellishly entertaining trip, for sure.
Green Day, led by Billie Joe Armstrong and further aided by Michael Mayer, turned their 2004 smash-hit album into something of a subversion of the traditional rock opera (if there is such a thing). There are no savior figures to be found here; Johnny (Luke Linsteadt) takes the moniker “Jesus of Suburbia” in self-deprecation, as he is “the son of Rage and Love,” he sings. Unable to bear being sacrificed to a dead-end life, he and his two friends – Will (Jay W. Cullen) and Tunny (Steven Perkins) – long for the bright lights of the big city. Johnny and Tunny hop the first bus they can; Will gets waylaid when girlfriend Heather (Alex Madda) gets pregnant. Their individual journeys are no more redemptive, least of which is Johnny’s, torn as he is between Rage (drug-peddling alter ego St. Jimmy, played by Malic White) and Love (safe and secure Whatsername, played by Krystal Worrell).
And in a 90-minute pump of adrenaline, sweat and haze, dreams are dashed and then renewed; feet are stomped; bodies are flown; beds are rocked ‘n’ rolled; and many, many birds are flipped. All under the watchful eye of an authentic upstage rock band.
Hypocrites member Steven Wilson, making his directorial debut, has a firm hand on the momentum of the show (as does the savage choreographer Katie Spelman), the company’s most contemporary outing to date. And indeed, Wilson manages to shave a few years off the show itself. Removing it from the original album and Broadway production’s immediate post-9/11 milieu would seem a tricky thing to do, as that period gives these rebels an identifiable cause in a blinding tempest of rock-opera impressionism. But by doing so, Wilson turns the show into something more timeless and universal: the story of a new generation dealing with the baggage of the old; the story of a people who were undeniably let down by those above them. While there may not be a consensus on any firm conclusions to draw, anyone who sides with Doc on this one is missing out.
It also helps to have a helluva persuasive score, and man, can Armstrong write strong tunes, strong enough to impress newcomers and keep fans happy. (Strong music direction helps, too, and Andra Velis Simon maintains a consistent sound even as the pit band swaps players.) This is a rocker who belongs in the theater.
And having actors who can perform 90 minutes of high-octane rock is a feat in and of itself. Linsteadt gets the crème de la crème, especially “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and his flirtations with disappointment self-destruction are compelling. As Johnny’s Rage, St. Jimmy, White is Pandora’s jack-in-the-box; once he pops out of a road case, there’s no stopping this agent of chaos. And as his Love, Whatsername, Worrell demonstrates killer pipes, boundless capacity for love and a hard line against taking crap from anybody (especially when the women of the show wrestle control of the band).
Perkins as Tunny is a perfect physical fit for the role. He sings well, make no mistake, but someone as obviously in-shape as he is manages to convince as a fresh face in the military. Cullen as Will – seemingly down for the count with much less apparent adventure – captures the unexpected thrust into adulthood and its disillusioning effects. And Madda defines the phrase “his better half,” shining as a voice of reason where there’s none to be found. Or to be had, perhaps.
Joe Schermoly transforms the Hypocrites’ Heath Main Stage into a seedy hole-in-the-ground club (however spectacularly lit by Heather Gilbert). And the odd detail aside (like the mismatched chandeliers), one can’t help looking at the graffiti and chainlike fences and upstage supports and being reminded of the overpass in West Side Story under which two factions come to deadly blows.
No one dies in American Idiot (or at least not literally, again with the twisted messianic themes), but it is nonetheless a spectacular heart-pounding, ear-pounding brawl between disaffected youth and their demons that are all too often ignored. And when the show lets out, it’ll be pounding in your brain for a while to come.
The Hypocrites production of “American Idiot” runs through October 25 at the Den Theatre, Mainstage, 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave. More information and tickets ($36, General Admission) are available online here.