If Broadway shows were rated in terms of volume alone, Green Day's "American Idiot," now on stage at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, would win every Tony award in sight.
Strident, confrontational and ear-splittingly raucous, this story of three young men breaking out of their suburban cocoon in different, equally unsatisfying directions would be a powerful statement of virulent discontent – if only its lyrics could be ascertained over the thundering din of the onstage band.
Every generation, it seems, has its own form of protest, whether it be the military draft ("Hair") or economic deprivation ("Rent"). The dissatisfied youths of "American Idiot" only yearn to escape their humdrum small-town life, and they do so with orchestral accompaniment at full volume, drowning out the impact of co-creator Billie Joe Armstrong's impassioned lyrics.
Despite this critical downside, the three principal actors manage to make their presence felt, particularly Van Hughes as Johnny, who encounters a life of drug-fueled desperation in the big city. Hughes' chilling descent into the hell of heroin addiction is brutally depicted, as is his fervent romance with a girl known only as Whatsername (Gabrielle McClinton).
His buddy Will (Jake Epstein) stays home – he has no choice since his girlfriend (Leslie McDonel) is pregnant. Their happiness quickly evaporates as real life intrudes with a dull thud.
Only Tunny (Scott J. Campbell), who joins the Army, enjoys an uplifting experience (and that term is portrayed quite literally). Though he returns from combat minus a leg, he discovers true love in the form of the stunning Nicci Claspell.
With Will and Tunny as background bookends, Johnny takes center stage in this excruciating exercise, conjuring up a slick drug dealer called St. Jimmy (Joshua Kobak) to lure him further and further into destruction. Hughes' performance is extraordinary, necessarily more physical than vocal since the actors' words are muted by musical director Tom Kitt's throbbing orchestra.
Epstein deeply reflects a captive frustration as his life begins to crumble. Campbell, the most physically challenged, becomes the most positive character with the aid of Claspell's devotion. Their fantasy aerial ballet above his hospital bed is one of the show's most beautifully realized elements.
Director Michael Mayer, who created the show with Green Day's Armstrong, plays out the scenario on a unit stage designed for adaptability by Christine Jones. In one scene, for instance, a scaffolding is turned on its side and becomes a bus.
The scenic effects are, in a word, awesome. Kevin Adams' lighting assails the audience, Brian Ronan's sound is overwhelming and Darrel Maloney's background videos reach a new high in atmospheric excellence.
Though much of the show's lyrical quality is compromised, "American Idiot" is a powerful experience in confrontational theater at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
TOM TITUS covers local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go:
What: "American Idiot"
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Closing performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, at 2 p.m. Saturday, and at 1 and 6:30 p.m. on Sunday.
Cost: Tickets start at $25
Call: (714) 556-2787 or visit http://www.scfta.org.