In 2004, Green Day was an amiable, if declining, punk rock band who’s most recent hit had been a sentimental ballad called “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”. Their breakthrough album was already a decade old, and they had been touring second-fiddle to Blink 182 (I know because I saw that tour. It’s where drummer Tre Cool autographed my ticket). Then came American Idiot—an operatic concept album responding to a fledgling American democracy steeped in the war on terror post 9/11 and its disillusioning effect on youth and upcoming generations.
It felt like The Who’s Tommy had been reborn. A generation finally had a voice. A couple of Grammys and platinum singles later, American Idiot the album became American Idiot the musical (2009), building on the former’s original story by following three alienated young men through a year of hardship.
Johnny (Harrison Smith), Tunny (Hasani Allen), and Will (Josh Sticklin) live a boring suburbia life until they purchase Greyhound tickets for “the city.” Except, Will’s girl Heather (Molly Janiga) is knocked up and Tunny realizes he doesn’t like street-living. Will stays in suburbia (playing video games and getting high) while Tunny suits up with the Marines and loses a limb, leaving Johnny—the self-proclaimed “Jesus of Suburbia”—to fend for himself. He falls into a drug-fueled stupor complicated by his love for a girl simply called Whatshername (Eben K. Logan) and his self-destructive, drug-dealing, alter-ego St. Jimmy (Christian Montgomery).
Keegan Theatre’s production is sharp, loud, and grimy—all in a good way. The set is a series of open windows which the cast and ensemble continually climb up and down and through; It also provides a broken backdrop for projections of the G.W. era’s media coverage, which ground the musical in a reality whose aftereffects reverberate today.
And the full cast looks like a heap of lost, late ‘90s miscreants—spiky or over-dyed hair and baggy pants with exaggerated eyeliner and dark brown lipsticks (oh, how it took me back to my good old days). The ensemble adds weight and power to an already pounding soundtrack with big, expressive dance movements.
The strength of the show is, of course, the music, which was certified awesome even before it became a musical. And if you like the songs—and surely you do since several were ubiquitous for a few years—you’ll enjoy the show in general. They remain similar to the originals but with myriad voices instead of just Billie Joe Armstrong’s screaming, rumpled elocution. Smith as Johnny—looking suspiciously like Billie Joe—hits his stride on “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” where his voice takes on the hardened, scratchy, tired, despairing timbre of a rock God. It’s also the first appearance of a guitar, played acoustically by Smith for a few bars and giving the show new depth.
Logan as Whatshername is the stand-out player. Her voice is smooth and unflinching, especially on “Letterbomb”—the break-up song. Chani Wereley, who, as Extraordinary Girl, dances in sequins in Tunny’s dreams is also excellent, while Montgomery, Sticklin, and Allen all perform with power on emotionally complicated songs. Tiziano D’Affuso has a brilliantly charming turn as Favorite Son—a clean cut, red, white, and blue military recruiter pursuing Tunny.
American Idiot culminates in Johnny, Tunny, and Will reuniting in suburbia, each changed and facing new realities because, as “When September Ends” says, “Innocence can never last.” It’s a nice, soft coda to a punk-pounding musical, but, in some ways, the story feels too contrived. I find this happens when the music comes first in a much beloved album or artists’ canon and then writers mold a story around that.
American Idiot the album was primed already with a story, and its lyrics have a cohesive (if not always obvious) thread that negates the need for much dialogue, but I still felt some things were forced—like a 2 minute office scene or Will’s paltry attempt to reclaim Heather.
This isn’t a criticism of the Keegan Theatre’s production, which is good, fast-paced fun, but just a warning to the like-minded. If you love the album and how its story plays out in your own head, you may want to just stick with it.
But, if you feel like a night out and want to see how one of the greatest rock albums of all times looks on stage with strobe lights, this is your ticket.
American Idiot . Music by Green Day; Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong; Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer. Directed by Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea. Featuring: Hasani Allen, Molly Janiga, Eben K. Logan, Christian Montgomery, Harrison Smith, Josh Sticklin, Chani Wereley, Tiziano D’Affuso, Melrose Pyne, Rachel Barlaam, Ricky Drummond, Willie J. Garner, Lawrence Hailes, Emily Madden, Amy Maniscalco, Stephen Russell Murray, Sarah Anne Sillers, Patricia Targete, Stephanie Leonardi.
Muscians: Jake Null (Conductor, keyboard, accordion), Mike Kozemchak (Asssistant Muscial Director, guitar swing), Jaime Ibacache (guitar 1), Jonathan Tuzman (guitar 2), Jason Wilson (Bass), Jonathan Feuer (Drums), Daniel Rivas-Isakowitz (Violin), Helen Cunningham (Viola), Katie Chambers (Cello).
Production: Matthew Keenan (Scenic Design), Allan Sean Weeks (Lighting Dsign), Debra Kim Sivigny (Costume Design), Tony Angelini (Sound Design), Patrick Lord (Projection Design), Craig Miller (Hair and Make-up Design), Carol H. Baker (Set Dressing and Properties Designer), Lauren Miller (Dramaturgy), Alison Crosby (Assistant Choreographer), Alexis Hartwick and Nikki Hoffpauir (Stage Managers), Brandon McCoy (Assistant Director), Tom Kitt (Musical Arrangements and Orchestrations), Jake Null (Musical Direction), and Rachel Leigh Dolan (Choreography) . Produced by Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.