CONTENT WARNING: DRUGS, AMPUTATION
Today, I bring you a review of Green Day’s American Idiot, the obscure Broadway hit. As mentioned in this post, Green Day mean a lot to me. American Idiot was the album that re-catapulted them to fame and so into my heart (grenade). Never in a million years did I imagine that this show would come to Australia, let alone only to the city I live in and only for three weeks!
In the seven years that this musical has existed, I never looked up the story or original recording. I had resigned myself to the fact that there would maybe be a live DVD or even a movie, and so I would experience it that way. I wanted to go into it with no previous conceptions.The albums American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown, from which some songs make an appearance, both tell stories focused on two main characters. But it’s in a vague enough way that you can interpret your own story. So while I had a vague idea of what the story line would be, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
A central theme of the American Idiot album and brought to life on the stage is that of Rage and Love- “I’m the son of Rage and Love/The Jesus of Suburbia.” Main character Johnny, spectacularly brought to life by Ben Bennett, wrestles with these two different, yet entwined emotions. We see him at the beginning with no Love and a lot of Rage, at his parents, his town and authority in general. Who are these people to dictate his life? Blasting off with titular song American Idiot, we see Johnny and his friends raging at these people and places.
The show begins with clever use of multimedia and television screens. The content immediately gives you a building sense of dissatisfaction, anger and frustration- is this really the state of the world and my place in it? Doomed to sit on the couch (or bean bag as it happened) and watch world events? Am I so powerless that I’m just going to let these things happen to me?
Immediately following is Jesus of Suburbia in which we see Johnny’s life- the people he hangs out with, what they do from day to day. We meet his two best friends, Will (Alex Jeans) and Tunny (Cameron Macdonald). Dissatisfied with day to day live, they make plans to leave the town they’ve lost faith in. Will, however, is stopped when girlfriend Heather (Ashleigh Barlow) gives him some unexpected news which puts a spanner in anyone’s plans. Tunny later finds his calling in military service, which I’ll talk about in a moment. Johnny is left alone and the explosive introduction of St Jimmy takes his life into darker territory.
We see throughout, whether on the sidelines or in the spotlight, that Will is unhappy with his lot and spends his days drinking and smoking on the couch with the television. We see his girlfriend, Heather (Ashleigh Barlow), living with him and trying to make it work. She brings their baby to the couch and he continues to stare, smoke and drink. Later they take centre stage as she packs a bag and a friend helps her leave. Only then does Will make any attempt to show he loves and cares about them. It is only then that emotion and action is roused from Will.
I need to talk about Heather. Costume choice for Heather (pink blouse, no eyeliner, pretty blonde hair) tells me that she is one of the girls who desperately wants to be part of that raging life- hanging out with the wrong crowd, getting into trouble. But her heart isn’t really in it. We never see her hold a beer bottle or a cigarette- she’s a Good Girl who made a bad choice and her life is changed now. She wants to shed the Good Girl persona and be a Bad Girl. I don’t believe that she comes from a necessarily broken home- perhaps her parents fight more often they should? Who knows what goes on behind closed doors? Even the most perfect looking life has a taint on it somewhere. But there is no real drive to be there. After leaving Will, we see her later in the show with another guy and her appearance is that of the life she came from. A pretty floral dress, her hair loose and she’s happy. I can identify with Heather- as a teenager, I desperately wanted to shed the Good Girl, but I never had the guts. Instead, I stayed in my room and wrote emo poetry and listened to Green Day.
In saying that, appearances are deceiving and no one aesthetic defines a person. But in performance, especially theatre, costumes are picked out for a reason, not just because they look good. And that is what I take from Heather’s costume.
Johnny has had an explosive introduction to his new life. The voice in his head, which he names St Jimmy, is shown to us in a burst of light and energy and is immediately someone you like. However, St Jimmy is the guiding hand down the wrong path, propelling Johnny to a life of drugs and violence. Even when he’s not directly forcing Johnny’s hand, he can be seen on the sidelines, watching and waiting.
Meanwhile, Johnny has also found Love with Whatsername, (Phoebe Panaretos). Whatsername and Johnny live a life of sex, rock ‘n’ roll and drugs. While Whatsername is recreational at best, Johnny, guided by St Jimmy, delves deeper and uses more frequently. The show handles this in a tasteful way. They show them “using” but it isn’t over the top- it simply makes you aware that this is now a factor in their lives. Whatsername eventually tires of his use and we see them arguing and throwing the tin of equipment away. When Johnny reveals another tin, she launches into Letterbomb, leaving Johnny and pushing him away from her when he tries to stop her. A powerful moment of how it breaks her heart to do so, but she is stronger than him and the situation.
As for Tunny. His moment in the spotlight is the only scene I have a problem with. He is wheeled onto the stage on a stretcher and we can see he is injured. Singing the introduction to Before the Lobotomy, I think he’s meant to be on painkillers before surgery. Suddenly, a figure in white floats onto the stage and we transition to Extraordinary Girl. Extraordinary Girl (Rowena Vilar) is attached to a harness which allows her to float, flip, fly and other fl- words. The song choice is… odd. If you don’t know the song, believe me when I say it is not a love song. It is a song of two lost souls finding solace in each others arms for a night, if you take my meaning. A strange choice that this should be the song in which Tunny and his nurse find an attraction for each other. But I suppose She’s a Rebel and Last of the American Girls were taken. Look, Green Day don’t write love songs, so there’s limited material. I think though, a different song could have been found and twisted to take the form of love song.
A wrenching rendition of Wake Me Up When September Ends shows the three men in their heartbreak. Johnny has lost his Love, but isn’t quite on the Rage yet. Will has lost his girl and child. Tunny has lost a limb. They sing together, in different parts of the world, lamenting what was.
Eventually, the show wraps with Homecoming and we’re right back where we started. I was thrilled to hear this song included. I don’t believe Green Day have ever performed it live (I could be wrong) but they’ve certainly never released official content. It’s one of my favourites. Everyone has come home, changed in ways they never imagined. Johnny has rid himself of St Jimmy and tried to live a straight life- but paperwork just isn’t for him. Tunny has come home with Extraordinary Girl and is reunited with Johnny and Will. Will has seen Heather and her new man on the street. He sees for the first time what he’s missing and Heather allows him to embrace their child. Extraordinary Girl takes photos of Tunny reunited with his friends. A happy ending all in all. We see our characters more full of Love than Rage.
And it wouldn’t be a Green Day production without one tradition- the last song. Good Riddance (Time of your Life) is played and the cast encourages us all to sing along. And we do. And it’s wonderful. The cast and musicians take their bow and exit stage to a well deserved standing ovation.
I don’t think I’ve done a very good job at explaining how amazing it is. I’ve tried to write it without gushing, and it’s hard! There are explosive, energetic moments throughout. But there are softer, quieter moments too. The band is live onstage and lead guitarist (Glenn Moorhouse) got so into it, he was amazing to watch. The Ensemble did an amazing job at their varying roles and costumes. And after posting on Instagram, some of the performers liked my post! The lead, Ben Bennett and Phil Jamieson (St Jimmy himself!) liked my post and Ashleigh Barlow actually commented! As we were waiting for our Uber to go home, Ensemble member Nicholas Kyriacou walked past and we said he was amazing and he thanked us. You couldn’t get a lovelier cast! And Boyfie loved it, which is always a plus.
I feel so lucky to have seen this show. I really do. I could go on and on and have in previous attempts to write this post. I’m listening to the original Broadway recording now and so I’ll go and have the time of my life with that.