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REVIEW – “AMERICAN IDIOT,” UC Irvine

Tonight, after six mind-bending performances, the one-act, sung-through stage musical, “American Idiot,” takes its final bow at UCI’s premier theatre, the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. The show is an adaptation of punk rock band Green Day's concept album of the same name. The struggles and angst of the post-9/11 twenty-something generation are at the core of the rock opera, which was written by Billie Joe Armstrong (founding member of Green Day) and Michael Mayer.


The show uses all the songs from Green Day’s critically acclaimed 2004 album American Idiot, as well as a few songs from the album 21st Century Breakdown, compiling the two to tell the tale of three disillusioned young men and their journey to escape the drudgery of their small-town life. The story is told almost exclusively through the music, the expression and body language of the actors, with only occasional snippets of dialogue.


Director and Choreographer Andrew Palermo puts on an edgy, high energy show in a dazzling 90-minutes that feels like a concert wrapped in a musical. Imagine a grown-up version of High School Musical, with a cast that guzzles beer and dances with scowling faces in grunge-inspired clothing. The live 9-piece band, which is directed by musician extraordinaire Lex Leigh, sets the pace with rock themes.


The set features matching slick gray overhead stairs on each side with an overhang walkway and a mysterious doorway in the middle that seems to open so fast and smooth it conjures up visions of the Starship Enterprise. Mattresses and beds were strategically placed, symbolizing rooms, and amps prominently out in front for the rowdy beer drinking partiers. Looped videos, digital imagery, newsprint, graffiti, strobes, lasers and mood lighting were freely used to add ambiance to the time period.


The three main characters Johnny (Ernest Figueroa), Will (Spencer Peterson) and Tunny (David Šášik) live a directionless existence in a small town, when their lives are shaken up by the tragedy of 9/11, and the political fallout of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They decide they need a dose of big city life, but before they can head off as a trio, Will discovers his girlfriend Heather (Ericka Redding) is pregnant, and decides to stay home with her.


Will gets stuck in Jingletown and struggles with what he believes is a dead-end life, while his friends seem to be living it up in the city. But soon after arriving in the city, Tunny is overcome with anger-fueled patriotism and joins the military, leaves Johnny and heads to the Middle East. Meanwhile, Johnny is seduced both by a woman, Whatsername (Alexi Ishida), and a drug addiction, embodied in the alter-ego of St. Jimmy (Abbey Workman).


Johnny’s deepening feelings for Whatsername prove to be no match for St. Jimmy, and she leaves him. Tunny then suffers a debilitating war injury and eventually loses a leg. He struggles in a military hospital, but finds solace with the help of his nurse, Extraordinary Girl (Sydney Wesson). Heather becomes fed up with Will’s apathy and leaves him, taking their baby. All three men hit rock bottom.

Johnny gives up drugs but his attempts to work in a “real” job leave him dissatisfied, and he decides to head back to his small town home. Tunny also returns home as a veteran who has finally replaced his anger with love, influenced by Extraordinary Girl, who has helped him through his transformation. Will accepts that Heather has moved on, and forms a truce with her for the sake of their child. All have been greatly changed by the events of the past year. It is less a happy ending than a hopeful one, but it is satisfying to see the main characters come to terms with their choices.


This show (whose Broadway production earned two Tony awards and a nomination for Best Musical) is not just about the exhilarating journey of the characters; it is a dramatic vehicle for the Grammy-winning, multiple platinum tough and punchy music of Green Day’s American Idiot album.

The high octane songs like “Holiday” and “American Idiot” are appropriately grungy, fueled by the high-energy “musical anger” of punk rock. This, balanced by dramatic pieces, such as “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams,” where Johnny looks for the meaning of life. “Wake Me Up When September Ends” is an introspective, partially acoustic number that features the trio of Johnny, Will and Tunny.


“Letterbomb” showcases the wonderful female cast, as does the acapella portion of “Favorite Son.” “21 Guns” is also a moving number that combines the voices of the entire cast in a spectacular effect.

Choreography is spell-binding, and infused with an element of anger (ex: the final argument between Will and his girlfriend). “Give Me Novacaine” uses lighting and choreography to contrast Will’s dreary life with the action of a firefight from Tunny’s point of view. “Last Night On Earth” conveys a night of drug-induced lovemaking, and the finale, “Whatsername,” cleverly combines vignettes of choreography from throughout the show.


Years ago, when Green Day blew up into the hot summer band of 1994, they were snobby little Berkeley, California punk kids who sounded more like they were having three-chord tantrums such as in "Basket Case." Between Billie Joe Armstrong's adenoidal snarl and Tre Cool's maniac drums, Green Day seemed like they simply wanted to play a few songs, raid the bar and disappear.

But in 2009 they came up with American Idiot: a politically charged epic old-school rock opera produced in the style and tradition of the Who's Tommy, showing how a street-level hardcore band could play around with storytelling without diluting the primal anger of the music. And all this from the boys who brought you Dookie.


It's something of a masterpiece, and one of the few - if not the only - records of 2004 to convey what it feels like to live in the strange, bewildering America of the early 2000s.


The Ensemble seemed as important to the story as the main players and presented several featured parts, most notably with Maximilian Gray DeLoach. Harmonies, back-up and synchronization was stellar and the dancing was not only quite physical but required perfect timing. Kent Burns, Milan Magana, Haley Chaney, Lizzie Menzies, Harry Cho, Shahil Patel, Alexis DeJoy, Rachel Potts, Justine Rafael, Madison Dietrich, Keaton Wilkerson and Kinsey Lahn made up the additional Ensemble troupe.


Scenic Designer Brandon PT Davis rocked the set. Jennifer Clark’s Costume pieces were right on target! Lighting by David Hernandez and Sound by Jordan Tani was superbly performed! Elizabeth Barrett’s techie Projections gave the show character, and Erik Smith excelled as Production Stage Manager. With sold-out shows nightly, seats were scarce. I thoroughly enjoyed this show and just wish they could do an encore run!


Chris Daniels Arts Reviewer

 © 2020 by KDaniels 

Chris Daniels, Arts Reviewer

The Show Report