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Punk Rage on the Stage in Green Day's American Idiot at Trustus Theatre

Review by August Krickel

Green Day's American Idiot is a faithful recreation of the punk band Green Day's concept album - or if you will, rock opera - American Idiot, which won a Grammy for best rock album in 2005, and sold over 15 million copies. Or as faithful a recreation as you can expect on the small stage at Trustus Theatre, with the angst-filled songs of rebellion reinterpreted via the idioms of the Broadway musical. Full of youthful anger and defiance, and performed with vigor by a talented and animated young cast, this show undeniably rocks out at full throttle; as long as you're in the mood for a punk rock musical, it would be hard to find a better way to spend an hour and 40 minutes as part of a fun night out in the Vista.

The relevant question, however, is: do you want to watch the equivalent of an extended punk music video for 100 minutes? What if I added the lure of a cold beverage and a comfy chair?  In the first year of MTV, given that option, I'd have said "Make it a six-pack, and I'm in for the next ten hours." My head-banging days were pretty limited, largely vicarious, and long behind me now, but I thoroughly enjoyed this production, even if - or perhaps because - it was as much rock concert as theatrical performance. Hard-core aficionados of punk may debate just where Green Day falls in the continuum of rebellion vs. commercialism, and how accurately a 21st-century, Tony-winning stage musical can capture the ethos of a sub-culture that originated in the '70's in Europe, but I'll limit myself to the merits of this particular production.

Primarily sung-through with only bits of spoken dialogue, American Idiot's story is partly allegorical, and mainly discernible through the movement and actions of the cast, and the emotions we see as they perform each musical number. In other words, it's awfully hard to understand the lyrics. Much of the show's socio-economic-political commentary becomes clear if you Google the lyrics, or look up interviews with lyricist and Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong.  No such luxury is available during a live performance, but I never expect to catch every word at a rock concert. (Or as Jimi Hendrix sang, " 'scuse me while I kiss this guy.")  Director Chad Henderson and choreographer Caitlin Britt - who also performs in the ensemble - work in tandem to make the show's broader themes clear.  Amid a generation of lower-middle class kids coming of age in a world they neither endorse nor relate to, three disaffected youths yearn to escape suburban dystopia and head to the big city, guitars in hand. Will (Cody Lovell) stays behind upon realizing that girlfriend Heather (Katie Leitner) is pregnant. Tunny (Patrick Dodds) is no happier on his own than before, and in a fit of post-9/11 patriotic frenzy chooses the military as remedy for his aimless existence. Johnny (Garrett Bright) follows the familiar rock-and-roll trajectory leading to alcohol and drugs, which are personified by St. Jimmy (Michael Hazin), an imaginary Mr. Hyde to Johnny's Dr. Jekyll. Along the way, Johnny falls into bed and a sort of casual love with a girl he recalls later as "Whatsername" (Devin Anderson.)

Not surprisingly, Will isn't the best father or partner, Johnny struggles with addiction, and Tunny ends up in a military hospital where he takes a turn for the nurse (Avery Bateman.)  The trained voices of Anderson, Leitner, and Bateman add depth and glamorous vitality to songs from a genre not known for sweet harmonies or pretty melodies. Dodds, Bright, and Lovell have similar vocal skills, but their numbers call for the rage and snarl more commonly associated with punk, which they capture with ease. Hazin embodies the dysfunctional yet seductive lure of St. Jimmy, a character played by composer Armstrong on Broadway; it's a shame that he's not on stage more. Also of note is Josh Kern taking lead on the song "Favorite Son," a jingoistic indictment of American values, which combines modern punk swagger with a sort of retro-50's sound, a la Joan Jett.

Although the accompanying band is partially hidden above the stage, musical director Chris Cockrell was always visible, and he remained on his feet for the entire 100 minutes - there is no intermission - simultaneously conducting seven other musicians and playing keyboard. I was reminded of Paul Shaffer at his finest, energetically wrangling rockers in one of those all-star jams at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Guitarists Jeremy Polley and Jonathan Knott alternated on lead, contributing staccato blasts of three-chord fury that lifted the accompaniment above proficient musicians capably performing a score and into rock concert territory. Moody string arrangements on slower numbers conjured the brooding ambience of other alternative bands of the era like Smashing Pumpkins and Oasis.  Baxter Engle's scenic design depicts a decaying urban wasteland filled with ubiquitous televisions and neon lighting, while Amy Brower Lown's costumes reflected the chaotic and conflicting fashion choices (or lack thereof) common among teens struggling to find an identity, yet still resembling each other.

The combined talent of the cast’s 22 members and the 8 musicians on stage, guided by the veteran creative team, ensured a frenetic, and for me, quite satisfying evening of live performance. Ultimately this is a rock album acted out on the stage, however.  Composer Armstrong’s collaborator on the book, Michael Mayer, is an accomplished stage director, and no doubt helped the novice playwright flesh out unformed ideas and themes into stage scenarios with concrete opportunities for actors to develop those themes. I found myself wondering if the issues raised in the libretto and given form in the staging and choreography might translate beyond the contemporary milieu of punk rock and alternative music, and have more universal significance? I suspect they do. Set in 2000 BC, I can envision Johnny seduced by the lure of Sodom or Gomorrah, Tunny falling in battle with the Philistines, and Will trapped the same way he’s trapped here, while singers on lyres recount the inevitable frustration of disenfranchised youth.  But admittedly, this is my own projection of relevance onto a staged rendition of lively Green Day music, so take that with as much skepticism as needed.  Green Day’s American Idiot runs through Saturday July 30th at Trustus Theatre, and tickets are reportedly going quickly, so visit http://www.trustus.org or call the box office at 803-254-9732 for more information.




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