BWW Review: AMERICAN IDIOT Takes Us Back To a Surprisingly Greener Day at Comedy Theatre
It was not that long ago, and a time not unlike that which we live in now, that Green Day released the album American Idiot that narrated a story of the world's greatest nation's underbelly that many sought out through the punk movement to ease the social and political tensions at the turn of the millennium. Now Trump replaces Bush, Parkville replaces Columbine, climate change replaces global warming, South Korea replaces Afghanistan. American Idiot showed the world from the perspective of the middle class white male before we used words like privilege, proto-feminism and appropriation in the way and as frequently as we do today. He was frustrated, compelled to patriotism (or nationalism depending on your circumstances), seeking escape, modelling a tough exterior through whatever styling, attitude and substance would credit it. All the while advances in technology pummel the world's youth with information that elevates and isolates the individual. Such is the environment we are transported into in the musical adaptation of that album so many millennial adolescents leaned on.
With its condensed run time, persistence of digital material to drive the narrative and focus on the music of a group of people frequently ignored by musical theatre marketing strategies, American Idiot could be a genuine success at changing the game for Australian musicals to reach younger demographics. It could the Rent of its generation in that way. The plot follows three men who dream of superstardom and liberation from their small-town suppression. Johnny and Tunny make it out; Will stays behind out of duty to his life with girlfriend Heather, who discovers they're to have a baby together. However, his burnout lifestyle of pot and booze feeding his regret at being left behind makes for a rocky relationship. Tunny loses momentum in the search for fame and fortune, heeding the call of the United States Defence Force and losing a limb in the line of duty. Johnny follows his heart into a beautiful love story eventually destroyed by drug abuse. Heather leaves Will. Whatshername leaves Johnny. Tunny falls for an Extraordinary Girl who nurses him back to health. Eventually the three men are reunited, leaving questions mostly unanswered, but the ending still happy for everyone who took the chance to find out what they could achieve.
Stepping into the looming and dank set plastered with screens and derelict spaces that wouldn't be amiss in the back streets of Brunswick, audiences revelled in the familiar sounds and the cross-hatched production that was a messy mash-up of musical theatre and what was most easily recognisable as punk rock attitude - middle fingers up, dark clothing and tongues wagging. Punk purists might have shuddered, but it was certainly entertaining. Phoebe Panaretos as Whatshername made every moment count - with an impossibly stunning voice she drew every eye during every second of stage presence. The male leads sung fantastically as the show was made a difficult sing by the fact original vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day has such an iconic vocal sounding. Connor Crawford drew the line to the source material and brought most of that nostalgia in his solos, Alex Jeans has the chops of a legitimate rockstar and Ben Bennett carried the weight of the show incredibly well considering he was only a recent inclusion after the swift sacking of his predecessor only announced the day prior to Opening Night. Both Kaylah Attard and Ashleigh Taylor cut through with supreme vocals, as does Erin Clare in the several moments she's given a chance to shine above the ensemble. Other standout ensemble members Christopher Scalzo, Kyla Bartholomeusz, Kuki Tipoki and Phoenix Mendoza drag your attention with compelling interpretations of the vibe of the time. Taking the Mephistopheles-type role of St Jimmy on opening was Grinspoon's Phil Jamieson who brought a strong presence to the stage. The role is being shared between Jamieson and fellow Aussie rock legends Adalita of Magic Dirt and Sarah McLeod of Superjesus. It's quite the temptation to return knowing the stage energy might change between St Jimmys.
Although it is possible to pick apart the politics of the piece, its intention appears to warn today's trigger-happy young people and remind them how quickly history repeated, but worse. However, the decision to invoke an angel/ghost-type figure in Islamic-style dress, which was then removed to reveal a more risqué costume of bedazzled harem pants and a crop top was in too poor taste to fly through the sensibilities and sensitivities of the audience - even if she was on wires. Regrettably, this put a confused and sour taste in the mouths of several members of the crowd, which wasn't really broken until the Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) encore that everyone could relax again.
The team behind American Idiot have done a good job of making such broad content feel cramped and uncomfortably close to the bone between Director Craig Ilott, Choreography by Lucas Newland and Josh McIntosh's set. The band were also a highlight of the show, members Glenn Moorhouse, Lee Mallinson, Sam Blackburn, Bennet Livingston, Pete Skelton and Heidi Maguire.
American Idiot is the musical to remind us why we're striving and struggling in a semi-fascist form of neoliberalism that no system or machine can seem to completely liberate us from or empower us to take impactful action to either interrogate or destroy. This music spoke to a generation trying to find their way, and may the musical have given it a new platform to do so again for another group who are ready to be awakened...when September ends of course.
Tickets/info available here
images by Dylan Evans