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American Idiot: What would Rodgers and Hammerstein have thought?

Because I grew up in a time when we listened to music by the album side, the idea of the rock musical -- essentially a string of related songs hung loosely over a plot -- is easy for me to accept. Still, you have to wonder, as I did while sitting in the audience last night watching American Idiot at the Buell, just what is going through the minds of other theater-goers as the Green Day musical unfolds. I noticed little foot-tapping, let alone head-shaking; except for a few hoots from the front-row diehards, this crowd was exceedingly, well, polite. Taking it in; liking it, perhaps, but...excited? I don't know.

I myself am a sucker for Billie Joe Armstrong's punk ethos with a melody, and consider him to be a really good songwriter with the kind of strong, eyes-wide voice that carries the material honestly and well. Though less literate than they are, he's matured into the Cali-punk equivalent of such musical storytellers as Pete Townshend and Ray Davies.

And that's the clue to enjoying Green Day's evolutionary music: Armstrong tells stories one song at a time, and every one is a smash. On that strength, American Idiot -- which boasts one of the hardest-working casts I've ever seen -- is surprisingly poignant, segueing through a seesaw of rave-ups and ballads, all sung in voices that ape Billie Joe's lovely timbre.

The story? Meh. There are three friends hell-bent on escaping suburbia for the big city, but only two of them make it, as the third opts to stay home with his pregnant girlfriend. Once there, another abandons the protagonist, Johnny, for the Army. Left to his own devices, Johnny finds love and drugs, strung along by St. Jimmy, the devil on his shoulder. In the meantime, we revisit Will at home and Tunny having fly-in-the-air eye-candy visions while lying injured in a military hospital. In the city, Johnny loses the girl and his self-respect, tries to join the straight world and fails.

And finally, a reunion with his buddies in his home town -- somehow the most Tommy-like moment in the show -- ensues. The songs, perfectly orchestrated, carry it all and give it meaning; the curtain-call performance of "Time of Your Life," strummed by the full cast on acoustic guitars, ends things on a sweet note.

I walked out feeling bittersweet, and I think a lot of other people did the same, even the ones who maybe didn't know quite how to feel. Somehow, I understood certain things better then I had before, like why punks might join the Army while hippies wouldn't dream of it, and how life can be so meaningless, yet also meaningful, in the alienated, post-punk, post-9/11 world.

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So I'm glad I saw American Idiot, and you might be, too, if you go. Plan accordingly -- the tour's abbreviated run here ends Sunday. Go to the Denver Center website or call 303-893-4100 for tickets and information.

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