Encore Michigan

Getting high on “American Idiot”

Review June 04, 2016 Paula Bradley

DETROIT–The struggles and angst of the post-9/11 twenty-something generation are at the core of Green Day’s American Idiot, a rock opera written by Billie Joe Armstrong (founding member of punk rock band Green Day) and Michael Mayer. The show uses all the songs from Green Day’s album American Idiot and a few songs from the album 21st Century Breakdown, to tell the tale of three disillusioned 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 small snippets of dialogue.

The Detroit Actor’s Theatre Company, directed by Creative Director Mindy Grissom, puts on an edgy, high energy show that feels like a concert wrapped in a musical; imagine a gritty, grown-up version of High School Musical, with a cast that drinks beer and dances with scowling faces in grunge-inspired clothing. The live band is visible at the corner of the stage, and the set features walls covered with newsprint and graffiti, mattresses on the floor and amps prominently placed in front–the ideal setting for a bunch of beer drinking partiers.

The three main characters Johnny (James Busam), Will (Tim Stone) and Tunny (Steven Edgar Ross-Dybash) live a directionless existence in a small town, when their lives are shaken up by the tragedy of 9/11, and they decide they need a dose of big city life. Before they can head off as a trio, Will discovers his girlfriend Heather (Brittany Nicol) is pregnant, and decides to stay home with her.

Will struggles at home 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 (Deanna Wesley), and a drug addiction, embodied in the alter-ego of St. Jimmy (Dustin Hayes).

Johnny’s deepening feelings for Whatsername prove to be no match for St. Jimmy, and she leaves him. Tunny suffers a war injury and struggles in a military hospital with the help of a nurse, Extraordinary Girl (Cassady Temple). 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, accompanied 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, and Johnny reveals the lessons he has learned when he voices his regrets over the loss of Whatsername. It is less a happy ending than a hopeful one, and 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 journey of the characters; it is a dramatic vehicle for the Grammy-winning, multiple platinum music of Green Day’s American Idiot album. The high octane songs like “Holiday” and “American Idiot” are balanced by dramatic and acoustic pieces such as “Are We The Waiting,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “21 Guns.”

Vocals are appropriately grungy. Unfortunately, the audio system did not serve the performers well: many of the solo vocal parts were hampered by a muffled sounding audio, and there were instances where the mics cut out altogether. (The numbers featuring the combined cast seemed to overcome the muffled audio better than the solo parts.) In a few of the high energy numbers, the vocalists went beyond the “musical anger” of punk rock and ventured into yelling.

There were many vocal and musical highlights, though. In “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams,” Johnny looks for meaning in 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 a capella portion of “Favorite Son.” “21 Guns” is a moving number that combines the voices of the entire cast to spectacular effect.

There were other well-done aspects of the show. Choreography is appropriately infused with anger (the final argument between Will and his girlfriend is a lovely fight/dance). “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 a drug-fueled lovemaking; and the finale “Whatsername” cleverly combines vignettes of choreography from throughout the show.

American Idiot definitely feels like a punk rock concert throughout most of the show; in fact, the sound is big enough to fill a much larger venue (although the audio level of the band itself is not overwhelming.) Viewers are also treated to cursing, finger flipping and characters stripped down to boxer shorts and bras, in keeping with their lifestyles and attitudes (although it feels a bit gratuitous in “Favorite Son”). This production would have been well served by a better audio system for vocalists, but the show is still exciting and enjoyable.

The critically acclaimed music of Green Day’s American Idiot album drives this show, but one doesn’t have to already be a Green Day fan to enjoy the show thoroughly. The energy and acting talent of the cast combine with the music to leave viewers on a bit of a musical high, humming the songs as they leave the theatre.

Green Day’s American Idiot is playing through June 11, 2016 at the recently renovated Olympus Theatre in Detroit.

Week of 8/8/2022

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