Yes it’s a tribute. Yes it’s a musical. Yes it’s a whole lot of Green Day.

The curtain raises and you see over thirty electrified television screens streaming visuals of Barbara Walters, the Britney and Madonna kiss, American Idol and soon the stage begins to take shape.

Three main characters become clear, Johnny (Van Hughes), Will (Jake Epstein) and Tunny (Scott J. Campbell). First observation – great casting. Each character is identifiable and with Epstein’s impressionable stage presence many start to take a closer focus. I do. He has that hook.

Directed by the brilliant Michael Mayer, the scenes switch fast and follow a similar framework: a one-minute introduction of the date with short captions usually spewed to the audience by Johnny. The stage becomes littered with women (provocatively confident women), tatted-up men and paraphernalia like drug-drenched syringes and blood packs. Each scene is highly visual. A lot takes place over the space so you find yourself following your selected star then linking the story plot along the way. Again, Epstein (Will) continues to catch my eye. Later it becomes Nicci Claspell (who plays the Extraordinary Girl).

The story follows Johnny moving through a post 9-11 world, complete with his own pain and the problems of his closest friends. War, falling in love, addiction and Johnny’s gifted yet troubling intellect all exist in this modern day rock opera.

Second observation – the themes are relatable.

The show is told through pop culture. Shirts reading “Save the Drama for Your Mama” run with TV projections of Wonder Bread, George Bush, bombs, Fox News and prose like “Please Help Me.” For 95 minutes the audience witnesses aerial interludes and sky-high theatrics, familiar songs and a messy coming of age story.

The theatrics and language are very rough. Scenes are racy, dark and awkward. I found myself biting on my finger the same way I do when a TV sex scene comes on in the family room; you just want it to be over, sort of. One woman says, “I don’t like how she’s dressed,” probably hoping she said it quietly, but we all heard. And then she became awkward too. Others squirmed, laughed and tried to find a spot on the wall to stare at – anything to avoid eye contact.

Twenty-one of Green Day’s songs are sung (from “Holiday” to “Jesus of Suburbia” to “Letterbomb”). If you were a Green Day fan you probably weren’t complaining. However, you may have wished to hear more of the older tracks.

The scene that still stands out the most to me and also the one that indeed altered my mood (just like Van Hughes said it might) was the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams performance. Sure I had heard the song about as often as an American says huh (thanks commercial radio), but listening to the lyrics in a different, stripped-down way with one guy and a guitar – to me it just awoke a couple of inner pains to be honest. I said a couple, let’s not get all sappy here.

Third observation – there is originality in the delivery.

Both Epstein and Hughes seemed in their element when singing and holding a guitar, perhaps that in itself highlights a young breed of  new broadway musicians. Whatever came through them, however they got there, it worked and the show benefited from that raw ingenuity.

I don’t like giving ratings—I like words.

There are shows which strike in a way that makes you think, you welcome it, but then there are the shows that spark something you don’t welcome and adjusting to that feeling can be a positive or negative digestion. American Idiot The Musical sure made me swallow differently.

Prior to the performance I sat down with Gabriel Antonacci [GA] from the cast ensemble (and the understudy for Johnny) and Van Hughes [VH] who plays the lead role, Johnny.

What are you most proud of with this production?
VH: The storytelling is completely creative and original in a way that people don’t really know what they’re getting themselves into sitting out there. ‘Cause my character gets to talk to the audience a lot I see the looks on the faces and there are a lot of jaws open, ha. We have an amazing light rig behind us with rear projections plus thirty-five TV’s giving you information, we’re telling you things, the music is telling you something—it’s something you can’t expect and that’s my favourite kind of art.

What music did you guys grow up on?
GA: You know you grow up liking what your parents like so for me it was The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – classic rock. For me when I was in high school Green Day was coming out when I was discovering my own kind of music and I remember listening to Dookie a thousand times and loving it, it was like summer camp. I still love the cover of Dookie.
VH: I still love it. It’s great.
VH: That’s the thing about Billy’s lyrics I think. They are so direct and poetic in a way that nobody else really uses language that way today, in writing, and I think his stuff will live on because of that.

Do you think nowadays songwriting is as appreciated?
VH: Uhh I dunno…it should be.
GA: I think a lot of people may think that music is becoming very commercial and songwriting could be looked at the same, but I think now more than ever it’s easier for someone in their basement to record an album that sounds incredible and easily get their music out over the internet. So if your song is amazing there’s a chance someone might hear it and there are more independent bands and it’s also more cost effective for young artists to go out and do it. I recorded an album in my house with my dad and that was good, but on the other side of the coin you have thousands upon thousands of other bands sort of saturating the scene with all those other songs. So you know it’s hard to find the good stuff, but when you do it’s totally worth it.
VH: Anybody can make an album these days with the technology, its just like what kind of truth are you trying to say, you know, what speaks to you and why do you want to be doing this? I think there’s always been pop music and there’s always been bad songs that are popular, but they’re clichéd in a bad and a good way because a cliché is actually true. I always like the song “breaking up is hard to do” {singing}, but ya breaking up is like the most devastating thing you can do yet this song is so “do-doadoto” and cutesy sounding, yet it’s a true cliché and that’s why people grabbed onto that song.
KK: Ya, like the Foster the People song “Pumped Up Kicks” is about a mall shooting and that’s a very peppy song…just to touch on that theme of cliché.
VH/GA: Really? Wow..

So, come to this show because…..
VH: Mhm, I mean you can’t come expecting something, so that’s a given. So come and let all your defenses down and just go along on the ride I think.
GA: Yep I agree, that’s the number one thing…you can’t come in expecting it to do anything to you, just come in and let it make you feel the way it makes you feel.
VH: And hopefully certain things will speak to you more than others and maybe the whole thing will echo something in your life. I think it’s a very emotional piece for a lot of people, myself included—that’s why I like to do it everyday. But I think most shows may skim the surface and might be entertaining, but that’s not what this is, it’s entertainment and it’s really going to alter your mood I think, if you focus on it.

American Idiot The Musical wraps in Toronto on January 15th.
For the full tour lineup and more info head here.

Download the American Idiot Cast Recording from iTunes.

Photos courtesy of Doug Hamilton / DANCAP