AS MORBID AS it sounds, I was hoping for a big character fatality about two-thirds into the stage adaptation of Green Day’s 2004 rock opera, American Idiot. Would it be Tunney (Thomas Hettrick), who’s on a gurney enduring a battlefield injury? Would his pal back home, Will (Casey O’Farrell), drink his apathetic and self-pitying self to death? Or, would their nihilistic bud — and American Idiot antihero — Johnny (Alex Nee), overdose on heroin, which he clearly prefers over his girlfriend Whatsername (Alyssa DiPalma) — or is that just the influence of his pusher/id, St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders)?
It doesn’t matter whether any of them dies. What does is the musical’s emotional void, which leaves you all but begging for something to give this allegedly sociopolitically influenced work some gravitas. And we say allegedly because if you thought the Gen X-meets-9/11 narrative was messy on record, wait until you see it unravel all over the Reynolds Hall stage.
American Idiot the album worked because Green Day not only had written its most melodically consistent record, but it had expanded its two-chord, verse-chorus-verse template to include structures reminiscent of progressive rock and Broadway musicals. Furthermore, the bits of commentary that singer Billie Joe Armstrong did successfully articulate resonated during the fearmongering, black-and-white sovereignty of George W. Bush.
However, onstage, the politics — save a multiscreen, multimedia onslaught akin to U2’s Zoo TV tour — take a backseat to the story of Johnny, who goes from being the so-called “Jesus of Suburbia” to just another starry-eyed junkie lost in the big city. But we can’t blame the drugs for all of his erratic behavior. Armstrong and director/writer Michael Mayer’s book doesn’t let Johnny and Whatsername’s romance appear palpable. Their actors are good at singing their feelings — and, heads up, parents, simulating sex — but those feelings don’t express love in a way that would justify their eventual heartbreak.
Tunney’s subplot has much more potential. He’s joined the military because everyone else is navel-gazing or made numb by the media, but he pays a huge price for caring. His storyline engages more deeply than the others, but Hettrick’s weak, raspy vocals don’t do it any favors.
Some diehard (and older) theatergoers may be turned off by the rock-concert nature of the performance — and the rock fans in the crowd will wonder why the soundman has favored a flat sound that often diminishes the drums — but nearly everyone will question why they should care about Johnny and his disillusioned crew. They shouldn’t. Purposeless — and, for that matter, poorly choreographed — characters don’t belong in a musical, the most successful of which always end in a sentimental payoff. Welcome to a new kind of tension, indeed.
AMERICAN IDIOT, 7:30 p.m. (also 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday), through June 16; The Smith Center, 361 Symphony Park Ave., www.thesmithcenter.com, $24-$129