Review: The Roxy Regional Theatre's AMERICAN IDIOT is Electrifyingly Immersive

By: May. 10, 2016
Ryan Alvarado, Charles Walljasper Robinson and Joseph Spinelli in American Idiot at The Roxy Regional Theatre - photo used by permission

As exhilaratingly in-your-face as only the very best of contemporary theater can deliver, Green Day's American Idiot - now onstage in a startlingly emphatic and exuberant production at Clarksville's Roxy Regional Theatre - exemplifies just how far the company itself has come since its beginnings as a community theater. Now, serving as a training ground for some of the very best of musical theater stars-to-come, The Roxy has more than come into its own, continuing to push the envelope, to challenge audiences to expand their artistic purview and to create theater that is as compelling as any you'll find on a stage anywhere in the good ol' US of A.

The Roxy's American Idiot is a fast-paced journey down a rabbit hole as exasperatingly confounding and confusing as anything Alice ever did and thanks to Jenn Rose's remarkable choreography, the cast never stops - hell, they never even slow down, so frenetic is the pace that Green Day's music and Rose's choreography demands. In fact, Rose's contribution to the overall success of the production cannot be discounted in any way - I want to give her an award right now, damn it - and is inspiringly realized and commandingly performed by the 13-member cast.

American Idiot may be as far from the golden meadows of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! as you can possibly comprehend and its storytelling seems far removed from Jerome Kern's Show Boat, but if you follow the line from one musical theater epoch to another, from one show to the next thereafter, you'll easily see that there's a through-line to the evolution of this uniquely American art form that resonates deeply and passionately for its followers. American Idiot may have been borne out of a concept album - out of the desire of each member of Green Day to challenge himself to greater musical glory, truth be told - but who's to say if Cole Porter, the Gershwins or Frank Loesser wouldn't have followed the same path to musical theater success (and, let's face it, excess tempered with not a little self-indulgence) had they gained access to the same musical provenance and technical wizardry of the early 21st century.

That's not to overplay the impact of American Idiot - it wasn't a particularly huge hit on the Great White Way, although its legions of devotees (oh, for the love of God, am I now one?) are fanatical to say the least (you need look no further than Nashville for proof of that) - but what it does so convincingly and so very compellingly is to look at the state of America in the aftermath of 9/11, the jingoistic fervor of patriotism that led many a political figure astray, not to mention the average Jane or Joe sitting at home watching the story unfold on their flat-screens. And you can say what you want about Hillary Clinton voting in favor of war, but the tenor of the times practically demanded that American forces rain down retribution and bombs on the Middle East in those halcyon days of 2001.

In the Roxy's superb production of the "rock opera" (a term I usually blanch at, but which seems appropriate to describe American Idiot, seeing as how it's almost completely sung-through - and I can only imagine what Puccini would say about it), a totally immersive experience from the moment you walk into the theater to see a documentary on 9/11 playing on nine different video monitors, you cannot help but confront your own visceral response to those jarring and frightening days of September 2001. Those monitors dominate the set in a way that is so apropos today, representing the pervasiveness of the 24-hour news cycle and how we learn about world events in our 24/7/365, 525,600-minute bombardment upon our lives of news and pop culture, otherwise known as the flotsam and jetsam of our lives. As everything that happens zigs and zags into the zeitgeist, we are buffeted about, forced to see things we can never un-see and to react, respond and relate - however misguided our notions may be or despite the things we think we see that may just be the creations of a media behemoth brainwashing us in order to render us contrite and ineffective. Big Brother is so much more than a literary device.

That sense of hopelessness, despair and youthful dissolution that followed 9/11 - if Billy Joe Armstrong and his band of brothers tell us that's what happened, who are we to question them? - inspires the story of American Idiot and propels it forward through an urban landscape that fairly writhes onstage in front of you, in some sort of ritualistic f-ing that seems certain to make you look at it even while compelling you to turn away in deference and defeat. But that decidedly middle-class, 20th century attitude is thoroughly undermined by the sensibilities of the early 2000s, with a new generation challenging preconceived notions and societal norms in order to create their own version, however warped and jaded, of the world.

And make no mistake about it, Green Day's American Idiot does create a new world on the landscape of what we consider to be traditional musical theater, one which requires more imagination and a greater sense of creativity to match the alarming/disarming score that tells the story of three boyhood friends who grow tired of their down-at-heels suburban lives. Will, Tunny and Johnny (played by the ideally cast Ryan Alvarado, Charles Walljasper Robinson and Joseph Spinelli in The Roxy's extraordinary ensemble of young actors) throw off the chains of middle-class ennui, chafing at the mantle of "slacker" their lives so accurately personify and, seizing upon the change that's steaming toward them like some cross-country locomotive (if Amtrak actually went there), they set out on a grand adventure thanks to a loan from Johnny's mom. Even the best-laid plans are sometimes made while using a parent's credit card.

But even before they can catch the bus (which is teeming with other disaffected youth yearning to breathe free in New York, LA, San Francisco or some other metropolis that's as expected and old-fashioned a destination as you can possibly dream of), Will (Alvarado) finds out his girlfriend Heather is pregnant and so he does "the right thing" and stays home while his compatriots leave on a not-quite-around-the-world trek that actually takes about 80 days or so.

Tunny (Robinson) joins the army after watching one-too-many war film in which we (America, First! - that should really make you voters think) are always on the side of right, only to have his leg blown off in short order, leading to a hallucinatory dream that might be more potent recruitment propaganda than even Hollywood could dream up).

Johnny (Spinelli) ends up falling for a girl whose name he can't remember and tumbles into the dream-state of the drug-addicted, thanks to the frighteningly mesmerizing St. Jimmy (Ryan Bowie, without question a traditional musical theater song-and-dance man par excellence, delivers a performance that's staggering and orgasmic, so electrifying is he).

Our three protagonists - each actor so seamlessly becomes his character that it's difficult to imagine anyone else in these roles - deliver performances as committed and focused as any we've seen of late. The reed-thin Spinelli, the boyish Alvarado, the clean-cut and all-American Robinson and the completely unexpected Bowie gain rock star status with their on-point portrayals (which, in retrospect, they don't so much portray as become).

Director Tom Thayer (who deserves as much praise as can humanly be heaped upon him for his design aesthetic for American Idiot) has assembled an outstanding ensemble of actors who bring the characters herein to life with so much passion and integrity that each of them has a star-making moment in the scant 90 minutes of the one act musical.

While the men are impressive, perhaps the women are even more so (depending upon one's point of view - perspective is everything in theater), particularly Alyssa V. Gomez' heartrending turn as Whatsername, Allison Kelly's palpable frustration as Heather and the luminous Sarita Amani Nash's beautiful turn as Extraordinary Girl.

In fact, all the ensemble deserves recognition for their energetic and resolutely bold performances: Allison Ferebee, Leigh Martha Klinger, Emily Rourke, Patrick Beasley, Michael C. Brown and Chris Shore. I'd watch them all read the telephone directory (if there remains such a thing to be found in this intensely online world in which we live), so long as Rose choreographed their movement.

The production's musicians - Thayer leads the four-man band, which includes Jarrod Jackson on guitar, John Waddle on bass and Thad Wallus on drums, with confidence and the quartet of players give their all to the performance of the essentially transcendent score - provide the show with a strong foundation on which this bona fide hit is built.