Punk packs power in 'American Idiot'

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Stark Sands, John Gallagher Jr. and Michael Esper

Stark Sands, John Gallagher Jr. and Michael Esper play youth struggling to find meaning in a post-9/11 world, in "American Idiot," a Broadway musical based on Green Day's 2004 album. The show opens April 20 at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. (March 30, 2010) Photo Credit: Ari Mintz

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If "Spring Awakening" was the birth of genuine rock musicals on Broadway, then "American Idiot" is its worthy son. Not as groundbreaking or original as its precocious papa in 2006, the punk-pop opera based on Green Day's multiplatinum album is an exuberant assault - a slick and tough 95-minute package of alienated suburban youth, media overstimulation and seamless, high-concept theatricality.

If "slick" and "package" seem odd fits with raucous music born in Berkeley in response to post-9/11 Bush-Cheney America, such are the trade-offs in this entertaining crossover to mainstream theater. The show has been brilliantly envisioned by Michael Mayer, director of "Spring Awakening," as a nonstop, sky-high concert/collage of embedded video screens and metal staircases, with musicians along the edges and the odd shopping cart or person hanging in the air.

He and Green Day lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong have strengthened the album's loose narrative into somewhat more of a story, adding two slacker buddies to the coming-of-age journey of Johnny, aka Jesus of Suburbia, played with blazing, nuanced commitment by John Gallagher Jr. The nuance is a huge plus because this generation of 7-Eleven's lost kids isn't more lovable or unknown than when Eric Bogosian wrote about their angst in the '80s.

Johnny seeks meaning in the city. His pal (Michael Esper) is stuck at home with a pregnant girlfriend. (Women tend to be moral burdens.) His other buddy (Stark Sands) goes to Iraq, seduced to war by a big black jock and girls in shiny red, white and blue minis. Johnny falls for heroin from St. Jimmy (played with spidery Goth menace by Tony Vincent) and for a heroine named Whatsername (erotic powerhouse Rebecca Naomi Jones). He gets smarter - at least a little - and goes home.

The terrific young cast throws itself into the frenzy with visceral abandon, doubling over and slashing through the angry dancing. There is a strange, gorgeous aerial ballet in which the wounded soldier's fever dream conflates a woman in a burqa with "I Dream of Jeannie."

The music, with its pounding regular chord changes, includes the compelling nihilism of "I Don't Care (If You Don't Care)," the aching poetry of "Wake Me Up When September Ends" and the banality of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." At times, the victim sensibility feels like pity-party rock for the Poor-Me Generation. But mostly, it's a lot of fun.

WHAT "American Idiot"

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WHERE St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St.

INFO $32-$127; 212-239-6200; americanidiotonbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE No "Spring Awakening," but powerful punk


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