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BWW Review: Risky and Innovative AMERICAN IDIOT at ArtsWest Pays Off

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Frederick Hagreen and the cast of
ArtsWest's American Idiot
Photo credit: Michael Brunk

ArtsWest has taken on a huge risk by putting up the Green Day musical "American Idiot" on their intimate stage. Not only by trying to fit this large spectacle in their space but also literally reconfiguring their floor plan and utilizing multiple areas within their theater to create an immersive experience in addition to the regular observational one. With so much going on, a cast of 31 and a full band this could have been a full on train wreck. But director Eric Ankrim and his crew have taken this super risky venture and spun it into pure gold.

The plot itself is fairly thin as we have three young friends Will, Johnny and Tunny (Michael Coale Grey, Frederick Hagreen and Justin Huertas) just starting out their adult lives and wanting to go off to New York and become famous rock stars. But plans devolve as Will finds he's gotten his girlfriend Heather (Chelsea LeValley) pregnant and isn't going anywhere, Tunny finds himself swept up in a patriotic fervor and joins the military and the now alone Johnny must find new friends and turns to the drug dealing St. Jimmy (Trent Moury) and gets himself strung out. So the plot may be fairly thin and predictable but the music that drives this rock opera isn't. Even if you aren't a Green Day fan (which I never have been) you have to recognize the sheer melodic storytelling capacity of their music and the powerful and infectious tunes.

But even beyond the greatness of the show now we add into that the riskiness of the staging I mentioned before. Immersive theater is not a new thing but it is regaining popularity with shows like "Sleep No More" in New York thrilling audiences. But what Ankrim and ArtsWest have done is to combine the more standard theatrical fare with that progressive style by allowing the audience a choice. You can sit in your seat and watch the show like we're all used to or you can buy a ticket to the Immersive show and be assigned one of multiple tracks to follow actors around the building in order to delve further into the lives of our heroes. Now while I opted for the standard observational viewing (because I'm old and can't be bothered to chase my theater around the building) I was told by Artistic Director Mathew Wright that no element of the story is eliminated by following tracks around due to the utilization of video monitors and multiple renditions of certain scenes being performed throughout the night. An organizational marvel in itself to pull off and pull it off they do.

Now even taking the immersive staging out of the equation (which I'm not certain is truly needed but as I said, I'm old) the show still manages a power and passion that surpassed even the professional tour that came through town a few years back. Ankrim has staged this down to the millisecond with some of the most thrilling choreography I've seen in some time from choreographers Trina Mills, Shadou Mintrone and Gabe Corey. Not only was the choreography beautiful and integral to the storytelling but it also managed to seamlessly shift scenes, set pieces and "immersed" audience members around like a well oiled machine. And when combined with killer music direction from R.J. Tancioco and Chris Ranney and a kick ass band that never overpowered despite being right in the mix of things, a stunning set from Jared Roberts and gorgeous lights from Tristan Roberson this adds up to a brilliant piece of work and I haven't even mentioned the cast yet.

Jimmie Herrod, Justin Huertas and the cast of
ArtsWest's American Idiot
Photo credit: Michael Brunk

There are 31 of them. 31! And not one weak link in the bunch. Each and every one of this superb ensemble cast is totally committed to the tone and story and is completely on board as cogs in the aforementioned machine. The lead guys are superb. Hagreen takes on some of the more damaged aspects with aplomb and makes his track a truly tragic one. Huertas' heartbreaking storyline is a thing of beauty in his hands. And Grey's voice is one of the richest I've heard in town. Moury as the malevolent St. Jimmy brings in a wonderful antagonist to the world and is quite convincing. And then there were the ladies, kind of written as secondary elements but never secondary in performance. LeValley is quite powerful as the other half of this unplanned pregnancy. Kirsten DeLohr Helland is in her usual stunning form with killer pipes and wonderful characterization as the drugged up paramour to Johnny, Whatshername. But it's the third "lady" that truly blew me away. Jimmie Herrod as Tunny's Extraordinary Girl was a performance for the ages. Not normally a drag role Herrod takes it and turns it into a beautiful character with a sublime voice. I actually had to double check myself that it was a guy singing when he opened his mouth. And the remaining 24 ensemble players each taking on and rocking their solo moments only made this piece all the more, dare I say, perfect.

Yeah, you heard me. I used the "P" word. But this production comes about as close to perfect as you can get. Sure I wasn't sold on the immersive option but it's just not for me and you can decide for yourself if it's for you. But even beyond that this is one of the best crafted, staged and performed shows I've seen in some time and so with my three letter rating system I give it a well deserved WOW (my highest rating). Seriously, don't miss this one. I mean you don't want to be an American Idiot do you?

"American Idiot" performs at ArtsWest through October 11th. For tickets or information contact the ArtsWest box office at 206-938-0339 or visit them online at www.artswest.org.


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