The rock opera first grappled with by Pete Townshend and Ray Davies at the end of the 1960s, as rock’s growing thematic seriousness and their own straining ambitions seemed to demand a grander canvas than three-minute pop, was often dashed on the rocks of their hubris.
For a punk rock opera (or more plainly, musical) to bridge this divide during a hit Broadway run is a feat Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong can take great pride in. The veteran Berkeley punk (with book co-writer/director Michael Mayer) is now testing the UK waters, with a tour ending at this venerable rock venue.
Armstrong takes a fundamentalist approach to Green Day’s hit 2004 LP American Idiot, adding a few scattered later songs by the band and lines of dialogue. That album’s themes have a true sense in this setting of youthful and post-September 11 political malaise. Johnny (Alex Nee) is the Jesus of Suburbia, heading to the big city with his friend Tunny (Thomas Hettrick), whose remote-control clicking through US TV’s militarist propaganda leads to a sleight of hand transformation from pants-wearing couch-surfer to uniformed soldier. As Tunny descends, stage-right, into a terrified hell leading to amputation of a leg in Iraq, Johnny is tempted by Whatsername (Alyssa DiPalma), the city girl love of his life, and blond-mohicaned punk Mephistopheles St. Jimmy (a cockily charismatic Trent Saunders). “Last Night On Earth”, during which the star-crossed lovers are bonded by the tube they’ve tied off with as they jack up with heroin, show how uncompromised Armstrong has been in entering the contemporary musical (and the mostly debased form he’s really rivaling, the We Will Rock You-style jukebox show).
The sheer volume of the stage band’s music and the frenetic rush of action provide constant energy. But tunes recalling the 1950s pastiche of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or, during “We’re Coming Home Again”, the Phil Spectoresque Springsteen of Born to Run, have few punk credentials. The indulgent-youths versus dutiful-wives combat of “Too Much Too Soon” also shows how much Armstrong’s characters are Kerouac boys and girls at base, American idiots and ennui unchanged. American Idiot is too traditional in its staging and its heart to be the radical experience one great Sex Pistols single would provide. But Armstrong and Mayer can be congratulated for the hyper-energetic confidence of what they’ve attempted.