Green Day’s American Idiot has arrived in the OC for a head-bangingly exciting one-week engagement at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts.

 Billing itself as “the groundbreaking Broadway musical,” American Idiot breaks even more ground in conservative Orange County than in New York, perhaps the first-ever punk rock musical extravaganza to play the former OCPAC, and one whose high-volume soundtrack, expletive-laced book and lyrics, and fuck-the-establishment attitude are about as far from traditional Segerstrom fare as can be imagined.

Still, if Opening Night’s nearly unanimous standing ovation is any indication, Orange County audiences may well turn out to be as enthusiastic as those in the Big Apple, where American Idiot ran for over a year, scored a Best Musical Tony nomination, and won a pair of statuettes for Scenic Design and Lighting.

 Based largely on Green Day’s 2004 concept album of the same name, American Idiot tells the tale of A Year In The Life of three societally alienated best friends and does so almost entirely through song (music by Green Day, lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong) and the barest minimum of dialog (book by Armstrong and director Michael Mayer).

As TV screens bombard our three antiheroes with images of George W. Bush, Middle East skirmishes, and reality TV fame mongers galore, Johnny (Van Hughes), Will (Jake Epstein), and Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) begin planning an escape from the stifling constraints of suburbia. Only two of them actually make it out, though, with Will not so willingly opting to stay behind with pregnant girlfriend Heather (Leslie McDonel).

Life in the city proves too much for Tunny, who ends up enlisting in the Army and getting shipped off to desert combat. Johnny sticks it out, however, his big city life soon including a young woman he knows only as “Whatsername” (Gabrielle McClinton), a devilish alter ego known as St. Jimmy (Joshua Kobak), and heroin.

 With its punk rock score, nihilistic storylines, and profusion of sex, drugs, and the F word, American Idiot makes its rock musical predecessor Rent seem positively tame by comparison, but Green Day, director Mayer, and an awesome young cast never let us forget the humanity of the show’s three protagonists. As for the music, Green Day’s melodies turn out to be so surprisingly melodic and catchy under the pulsating drum beats and electric guitar licks that even those not accustomed to listening to contemporary rock may find themselves humming as they leave the theater.

Though American Idiot proves a departure from its triple-threat cast’s previous credits (9 To 5, Hairspray, Jersey Boys, Billy Elliot, and Spring Awakening are on Hughes’, Epstein’s, and Campbell’s résumés), all dozen and a half of them prove more than up to the challenges of singing at the top of their lungs and executing the head-banging, boot camp-ready dance workouts created for them by choreographer Steven Hoggett.

Hughes is a charismatic standout in the show’s biggest role, both dramatically and vocally, with songs that range from rock at its loudest to several expressive ballads, the young Broadway vet accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar. Epstein and Campbell provide terrific support as do McClinton*, McDonal, and the dynamic Kobak at his most satanic. Finally, California’s own Nicci Claspell breaks through to National Tour star status as Extraordinary Girl, a role that gives her and Campbell the production’s most talked-about sequence, an exquisite aerial ballet pas de deux performed high above the stage to audience oohs and aahs.

 There’s not a weak link in quite possibly the hardest-working ensemble in town, a dynamic dozen or so who remain onstage virtually throughout, with Hoggett’s choreography and Green Day’s songs giving them as tough a vocal and dance workout as they’ll probably ever get. Talia Aaron, Krystina Alabado, Gabriel Antonacci, Larkin Bogan, Jennifer Bowles, Matt DeAngelis, Dan Gleason, Kelvin Moon Loh, Tommy McDowell, Jillian Mueller, Jarran Muse, Vince Oddo, and Okieriete Onaodowan are the sensational ensemble and swings who deserve their own standing ovation.

 Music director-keyboardist conducts the production’s six-piece onstage band, a sextet who could easily headline their own rock concert—associate music director Jason Bozzi and Julian Peterson on guitars, Dan Grennes on bass, Alon Bisk on cello, and Grant Braddock on drums. Tom Kitt deserves kudos too for his musical supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations.

It’s no wonder that scenic designer Christine Jones and lighting designer Kevin Adams won Tonys for their spectacular American Idiot collaboration, one which includes walls of TV monitors of various sizes and dimensions (video and projection design by Darrel Maloney) and lights that not only illuminate the actors but flash at the audience almost nonstop. Andrea Lauer’s costumes are exciting creations as well. Brian Ronan’s sound design keeps the volume rock-concert high, as it should be, though lyrics end up nowhere near as clear as they do on the Original Broadway Cast recording, one worth listening to before seeing the show if only for that reason.

Monica Dickhens is production stage manager.

More traditional Segerstrom subscribers have only two weeks to wait till Les Miz comes to town for a two-week engagement. In the meantime, the young and the edgy (or at least the young-and-edgy at heart) have this week to rock out to the music of Green Day in this truly groundbreaking Broadway hit.

*Note:  Since originally posting this review, it’s been called to my attention that the stunning Gabrielle McClinton is not only a Southern California native, she is a graduate of the Los Angeles County High School For The Arts (LACHSA), which has its classrooms on the campus of Cal State University Los Angeles, where I’ve been teaching ESL for many years–and in the same buildings as the high schoolers.  Not only that, but I actually saw Gabrielle live on stage in the sensational LACHSA production of Dreamgirls, which also starred James Fowler, Andrew Chappelle, and Ryan Cantwell, whom I’ve stayed in touch with and whose careers I’ve been following since then.  “Gabby” McClinton was a LACHSA sophomore at the time, on her way towards her BFA from Carnegie Mellon University!

Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
May 29, 2012
Photos: Doug Hamilton

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