Seeing Ourselves in ‘American Idiot’

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Eben Logan, center stage in "American Idiot." | Courtesy Keegan Theatre.

“American Idiot,” the Green Day/Billie Joe Armstrong rock musical about a kinetic, confused and lost group of post-9/11 suburban small-town youths has already been extended through April 16 at the Keegan Theatre in Dupont. As semi-contemporary musicals go, it’s a current Washington must-see. It could probably run longer.

We’re talking not so much about my generation, but someone’s generation. And the show echoes forward and backward to them all, with rippling guitar riffs, painful ballads and an energy you won’t find on too many stages.

“American Idiot” actually was birthed and perhaps spawned in 2004. It became a super-album by the group Green Day and Armstrong, its charismatic leader, he of the zombie-like heavy eyeliner and lean, mean and boyish stage persona. With punkish as well as Who-ish “Tommy”-like roots, it became a surprise 2009 Broadway show and hit (although minus Green Day and Armstrong).

What’s affecting about the production at the Keegan — directed by founders Mark and Susan Marie Rhea — is the energy, the way it seems like a prolonged, authentic outburst of feeling and confusion, and the way it pays respect to the music. For artists sort of bagged in the punk-garage milieu, the music is surprisingly varied, mixing jump-off-the-stage guitar-god numbers with those plaintive ballads. A uniformly terrific cast aids and abets the proceedings with a full investment of physicality and emotion; the mix seems painfully wrought by tears, lighter fluid and dynamite sticks.

It seems to me, too, to be a generational musical from a period during which the sureties of youth were punked. There was no sure-thing after graduation, little time for adventure and a bag full of doubts about the end of the rainbow for many young people of the time, who are perhaps the same group that’s come to angry maturity now.

In “American Idiot,” they’re already angry. “Welcome to a new kind of tension/all across the nation,” the cast sings in the title song … don’t want to be an American Idiot/one nation controlled by the media.” It’s a far different notion than in the 1960s, when they were singing in the Bay Area “all across the nation/there’s a new vibration … people in motion.”

These kids, headed more or less by the “Jesus of Suburbia,” are eager to get out of suburbia into the open-armed “city,” only to find chaos, desire and nothing much to embrace. There’s Johnny, feverishly played, often like a zombie-clown, by Harrison Smith, in Billie Joe Armstrong apparition form; Heather, by Holly Janiga; the soaring-voiced Eben Logan as Whatshername, Johnny’s love, forever but not quite; and Christian Montgomery as the creepy-appealing St. Jimmy, the drug dealer who brings a box of bliss and sorrow and needles.

The music is terrific. Songs like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Favorite Son,” “Give Me Novocaine,” “She’s a Rebel,” “Extraordinary Girl” and “Know Your Enemy” define the times and the young people.

You don’t have to a member of any particular generation to get this. The music and the musical echo like low-lying roadside bombs, or broken limbs and broken hearts. It reminded me of “Hair,” one of the first generational rock musicals, which Keegan, incidentally, did proud with an expansive production some years back. It appears from one visit that everyone has poured their hearts into this production; it sways and rocks and sometimes cracks in the smallish space here. And the audience, on this visit, rocked back.

If Baby Boomers can respond to this and see some other one of their own selves in it, then “American Idiot” may be more than just grounded in its own time and place. Maybe soon or sometime later we’ll have a definitive Millennial musical. In the meantime, we’ve got this production of “American Idiot.” Go see it. You’d be an idiot not to.

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