REVIEW: "GREEN DAY'S AMERICAN IDIOT" — Chance Theater
Updated: Jul 27, 2022
"I walk a lonely road, the only one that I have ever known..."
— Green Day, Boulevard of Broken Dreams
JULY 26, 2022—ANAHEIM
Rage and love, those consuming emotions felt with a particularly acute pang in youth, all but burnt up the stage this past weekend in “American Idiot,” the thrillingly raucous and gorgeously wrought Broadway musical adapted from the blockbuster pop-punk album by Green Day.
Theater might seem a strange place for the music of Green Day, with its blunt, bold and aggressive attitude. Not to mention loud. But from the moment the show opened on this panorama of baleful youngsters in its regional premiere at the venerable Chance Theater in Anaheim Saturday night, these kids made themselves heard, serving straight up each sneering lyric and snarling riff of Green Day's gritty and dynamic sonic palette, with enough instrumental viciousness to shatter a punchbowl.
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 punk-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.
“American Idiot” almost exclusively uses the music of Green Day and the lyrics of its kohl-eyed frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong, to tell its story. The score comprises the whole of the title album as well as several songs from the band’s “21st Century Breakdown,” bringing a jolt of authentic rock-god electricity to the musical. The book, by Mr. Armstrong and Michael Mayer, consists only of a series of brief, snarky dispatches sent home by the central character, Johnny, played with squirmy intensity by the immensely gifted Jared Machado (“When it’s Time”), singing with a surging, gut-driven power that brings out the snarling anger and fierce intensity in the music.
“I held up my local convenience store to get a bus ticket,” Johnny says with a smirk as he and a pal head out of town.
Pause. “Actually, I stole the money from my mom’s dresser.” Beat. “Actually, she lent me the cash.”
The young men we meet in the first minutes of “American Idiot” are too callow and sullen and restless to channel their emotions constructively. The show opens with a glorious 20-minute temper tantrum kicked off by the title song. “Don’t want to be an American idiot!” shouts one of the gang. The song’s signature electric guitar riff slashes through the air, echoing the testy challenge of the cry. A sharp, five-piece band, led by Music Director Gabrielle Maldonado, is house right of the action, providing an auricular frame for the show. The simple but spectacular set, designed by Kristin Campbell, suggests an epically scaled dive club, its looming walls peppered with punk posters and pimpled by television screens, on which frenzied video collages flicker throughout the show.
Directed by James Michael McHale and performed with galvanizing intensity, the terrific cast detonates a fierce aesthetic charge in this pulsating portrait of misspent youth that invokes all the standard genre conventions. Bring on the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, please! — only to transcend them through the power of its music and the artistry of its execution. The show is as invigorating and ultimately as moving as anything I’ve seen on stage this season.
The two-time Tony Award-winning high-octane musical “Green Day’s American Idiot,” based on the 2004 Grammy Award-winning multi-platinum concept album, boldly takes the American musical where it’s never gone before. The stage version’s story centers on the lives of three disaffected young men, Mr. Machado's Johnny, Will (Christopher Diem; “Jesus of Suburbia”), and Tunny (Eric Dobson; “Favorite Son”), who 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. Fed up with the state of the union, the company explodes in frustration ("City of the Damned").
They decide they need a dose of big city life, but before they can head off as a trio, Will gets stuck in Jingletown when he discovers his girlfriend Heather (Angie Chavez; “Dearly Beloved”) is pregnant. Lost and lonely, and far from ready for the responsibilities of fatherhood, he sinks into the couch, beer in one hand and bong in the other, as his friends Johnny and Tunny flee the parental restrictions and suffocation of life in suburbia, seeking meaning to their existence.
Soon, Tunny is overcome with anger-fueled patriotism and joins the military, leaves Johnny and heads to the Middle East. 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 (Kristin O’Connell; “Extraordinary Girl”). Back home, Heather also becomes fed up with Will’s apathy and leaves him, taking their baby. Now, all three men have hit rock bottom.
Johnny strolls the lonely streets with his guitar, vaguely yearning for love and purpose. He eventually hooks up with a girl (Whatsername — a vivid Erika Mireya Cruz; “Letterbomb”) but falls more powerfully under the spell of an androgynous goth drug pusher, a nihilistic alter-ego named St. Jimmy, played with mesmerizing vitality and piercing vocalism by Dagmar Marshall-Michelson (“Last Night on Earth”). On the stage Ms. Marshall-Michelson is a vivid, feral and animated presence suggesting there will always be more exotic pleasures to be discovered as long as the sun hasn’t come up yet. And when St. Jimmy is at the center of the action portraying Johnny’s sinister version, Ms. Marshall-Michelson is ablaze with energy, a whirling tornado of temptation, embodying a dark threat of self-destruction.
The city turns out to be just a bigger version of the place Johnny and Tunny left behind, a “land of make believe that don’t believe in me.” The boys discover that while a fractious 21st-century America may not offer any easy paths to fulfillment, the deeper problem is that they don’t know how to believe in themselves. Beneath their swagger of indifference, of course, is anxiety, fear and insecurity, which Mr. Machado, Mr. Dobson and Mr. Diem transmit with aching clarity in the show’s more reflective songs, like the hit “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” or the lilting anthem “Are We the Waiting.”
Director McHale puts on an edgy, high energy show in a dazzling 95-minutes that basically is a rock-punk concert wrapped in a musical with a cast that guzzles beer and dances with scowling faces in grunge-inspired clothing, while looped videos, digital imagery, newsprint, graffiti, strobes, lasers and mood lighting add ambiance to the time period.
The restless, convulsive choreography by Miguel Cardena 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 which exults in both the grace and the awkwardness of energy-generating young metabolisms.
The original orchestrations by Tom Kitt (the composer of “Next to Normal,” “Bring it On,” “Magic Mike”) move from lean and mean to lush, befitting the tone of each number. Even if you are unfamiliar with Green Day’s music, "American Idiot” will jolt you right back to the dizzying roller coaster of young adulthood, that turbulent time when ecstasy and misery almost seem interchangeable, flip sides of the coin of exaltation. It captures with a piercing intensity that moment in life when everything seems possible, and nothing seems worth doing, or…maybe it’s just the other way around.
THE CAST: Jared Machado (“Next to Normal”) will play Johnny, Eric Dobson (Chance Debut) is Tunny, Chance Resident Artist Christopher Diem (“James and The Giant Peach”) is Will, Erika Mireya Cruz (“Legally Blonde”) plays Whatsername, Angie Chavez (“Next to Normal”) is Heather, Dagmar Marshall-Michelson (“A Chorus Line”) will play St. Jimmy, Kristin O’Connell (“The Secret Garden”) plays Extraordinary Girl, and Jack Aitken (“Spring Awakening”), Sophia Barajas (“Cry Baby”), and Wyatt Hatfield (“Spongebob Squarepants”) make their Chance debuts as the ensemble.
THE CREATIVE TEAM: Joining Director James Michael McHale (“Edges”) on the design team for “Green Day’s American Idiot” are Music Director Gabrielle Maldonado (“The Drowsy Chaperone”), Choreographer Chance Resident Artist Miguel Cardenas (“The Secret Garden“), Stage Managed by Cynthia C. Espinoza, Scenic Designer Kristin Campbell (“Yellowman”), OC Theatre Guild Award-winning Lighting Designer Andrea Heilman (“Yellowman”), Costume Designer Bradley Allen Lock (“Fun Home”), Sound Designer Hunter Moody (“Edges“), FOH Mix by Hannah Jepsen, Props by Kylie Baumbusch & Bebe Herrera, Ovation Award-winning Projection Designer Nick Santiago (“Sweat“), and Stage Manager Cynthia C. Espinoza (“Striking 12”). The executive producers for “Green Day’s American Idiot” are Rachelle Menaker & Eddie Schuller. Bette & Wylie Aitken are producers for the entire 2022 Season and The Family of Mary Kay Fyda-Mar are the season’s associate producers.
PERFORMANCES: July 23 - August 14, 2022 Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. TIME: 1 hour 35 minutes, with no intermission. Chance Theater @ Bette Aitken theater arts Center on the Cripe Stage, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, CA 92807 TICKETS: $25-$49. For more information, contact: www.ChanceTheater.com or call (888) 455-4212.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report