When the first verse of "American Idiot" kicks in it's easy to assume that you're in for a 90-minute Billie Joe Armstrong tribute act; but when another voice joins in during the second verse you can rest assured that this is Green Day as musical theatre, and the rearrangements (by Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Kitt) are mind-blowing – perhaps even, as Billie Joe himself has said, better than Green Day’s original tracks.
Before curtain up the sound of news headlines fills the auditorium. Amongst reports concerning politics and terrorism we hear some familar names: “Britney”, “Justin Timberlake”, “Angelina Jolie”. Curtain up, and we see flickering images heralded on 32 TV screens that line the walls of Christine Jones’ Tony Award-winning set, from starving children to George Bush to terrorists to Britney’s bald head, along with scaffolding structures, a bed and a sofa. This is about post-9/11 America, and how three friends struggle to be young in it.
Jonny (Alex Nee), the ‘Jesus of Suburbia’, leads the group out of the suburbs and into the city in search of fulfillment. Tunny (Thomas Hettrick) goes with him but soon finds that even the bright lights of the city don’t satisfy him, so he joins the army after being persuaded by a TV ad. Meanwhile, Will (Casey O’Farrell) is forced to stay on the couch, bong in hand, with his pregnant girlfriend.
We get taken into a meaningless world of teenage frustration and rebellion as the all-American voice of Ryan Seacrest booms out “this is American Idol!” In response, Johnny belts out “don’t wanna be an American idiot / don’t want a nation under the new media”. We’re thrust into a show in which there are 32 flickering television screens to look at, ten things are going on at once, there are multi-coloured flashing lights everywhere, and Ryan Seacrest has the last word; the “American Idiot” album denounces a media-dominated culture in which cheap thrills and short-term fulfillment rule. These ideas are expanded on in the musical in a darkly satirical manner.
Billed as a rock opera, American Idiot’s music consists of the whole of the 2004 Green Day album of the same name as well as some releases from 21st Century Breakdown (2009) and a few B-sides. In the temper-tantrum opening number, a multitude of different voices express that they “don’t wanna be an American Idiot” in the round, creating a goose bump-inducing explosion of different coloured voices.
The acoustic arrangements come as breaths of fresh air, as at times the continuous rock anthems get a bit much; Alex Nee’s rendition of “Wake Me Up When September Ends” accompanied by just himself on the guitar is particularly haunting.
A special mention has to go to the revolutionary sound produced in “21 Guns”. The band and cast are in full swing and Alyssa DiPalma’s (Whatshername) vocals going into the bridge are stunning and truthful. The band is always on stage and the cast play guitars, giving the show a definite rock concert vibe.
With rare only snatches of dialogue interspersing the songs, Steven Hogget’s expressive choreography lends welcome meaning. The angry, jolty movements in “Letterbomb” give the ambiguous lyrics context – up until now the biggest female presence in the show has been the sign on the ladies’ toilet door in the middle of the set, but this is the girls’ moment to vent their rage towards the opposite sex, and their energy as an ensemble is enthralling. There’s a fusion of different styles of dance; the street dance-influenced rough and ready ensemble movement in the title song contrasts with the precise, mechanical choreography in “21 Guns”. We also see a fusion of head-banging and ballet from the nurses in “Before the Lobotomy”.
Although the show is set in 2003 the issues expressed are painfully current; when we get images of supermarket goods flashed on screen while one of the TVs gets rammed into a shopping trolley an inevitable connection is made with last year’s UK riots. Played out as raw, rage-fueled action on stage it is clear that Green Day’s music conveys the same status frustration as that of the rioters; the frustration of being a young person in an unjust society that appears to offer very little prospects. Played and sung with electric energy and conviction, American Idiot is Rent for this generation.
- Leone Richmond
The cast of American Idiot will be performing at the launch of the 2013 Whatsonstage.com Awards! Click here for more info