In 2004, Green Day released American Idiot, a concept album that the band members referred to as a ‘punk rock opera’. Released 18 months after the US went to war with Iraq, the collection of songs had a bold political through line. It was a call to disengaged and disillusioned young Americans to pay attention, take the chance to make a difference and affect change by voting George W. Bush out of office in the 2004 Presidential Election. While Bush remained president for a further term, the album was a huge commercial success (selling over 16 million copies worldwide) and critically acclaimed (taking home the Grammy Award for Best Rock Album).
Five years later, American Idiot arrived on stage in musical form, under the direction of Michael Mayer (a Tony Award-winner for Spring Awakening), who also co-wrote the book with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. After its initial outing in California, American Idiot (the musical) made its Broadway debut in 2010, where it played over 400 performances and earned two Tony Awards (for scenic design and lighting), as well as a nomination for Best Musical.
Since its Tony Award-winning season in New York, American Idiot has played across North America, South America, in Scandinavia and on London’s West End. Last year, it finally had its Australian premiere, produced by Brisbane’s shake & stir theatre co and Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC). Given the huge success of the limited season at QPAC, the two producing partners are now taking the Australian premiere production around the country, starting in Sydney last week.
Virtually all sung, the musical is set to the songs of the Green Day album that shares its title, as well as tracks from the band’s subsequent release, 21st Century Breakdown. Music fans will find plenty of recognisable chart hits from the mid-naughties, including ‘Jesus of Suburbia’, ‘Holiday’, ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’, and ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’. The show tells a simple story, set in the fictional ‘Jingletown, USA’ and focusing on a group of disenfranchised, working class youth.
At the centre of the story are three friends: Johnny (Linden Furnell), Tunny (Connor Crawford) and Will (Alex Jeans). Constantly bombarded by TV images, they struggle to make sense of all the noise and are fed up with their lives. So, Johnny buys the three men bus tickets so that they can escape to the city.
Things begin to go wrong almost instantly. Will never makes it out of the starting gate, remaining behind to be with his now-pregnant girlfriend, Heather (Ashleigh Taylor). After the other two men arrive in the city, Tunny is convinced by TV ads that he’ll find what he needs by serving a higher purpose in the military. And once he leaves, Johnny reveals a darker alter ego – a drug dealer named St Jimmy (Phil Jamieson). While Johnny also begins dating a girl (Phoebe Panaretos), his descent seems unstoppable.
Each of the men unravels. Relationships are lost and Tunny, who is called on to serve in a warzone, is seriously injured. How can each of the men, now having sunk to their lowest point, pull themselves back from the brink and become genuinely invested in their own lives?
American Idiot has minimal dialogue, so it’s primarily the task of Green Day’s songs to move the story forward, and it means there are only basic characters established. Ultimately, the show is more accurately described as a rock concert with a story than a musical with rock songs. That said, the ability of cast members to emote and interact with one another through song means they get about as much out of the loose narrative as they can. A clear picture of disillusionment is painted, with the call to remember those who feel unheard unambiguous.
While American Idiot made its appearance on Broadway in 2010, it feels as though the current climate offers a ready audience for this show. It’s just over a year since Donald Trump was elected to the US Presidency, and the US is now more divided now than it has been in living memory, and the era of ‘Fake News’ is upon us, in which people are told by the highest office to distrust many of their traditional information sources. Making sense of the noise and rising above apathy is a daily challenge for many.
Craig Ilott’s direction of American Idiot’s national tour ensures the currency of its themes are patent from the outset. The impressive projected video content (designed by Craig Wilkinson) is full of images recognisable for their part in a saturated media. Both the projections and Matthew Marshalls’ outstanding lighting design (which plays an integral role in enhancing the production’s electric vibe) are enormous assets to the show.
Ilott’s direction sets a cracking pace, makes use of every inch of Josh McIntosh’s industrial set, and drives the cast to deliver Green Day’s evocative lyrics with conviction. Lucas Newland’s choreography is careful yet edgy and matched to the power of Green Day’s words.
Playing St Jimmy (a role he is sharing on the national tour with Adalita and Sarah McLeod), Grinspoon frontman Phil Jamieson brings his bona fide rock star presence to the role of Johnny’s insubordinate, drug-fuelled alter ego. As the three central men of the story, Furnell, Crawford and Jeans are similarly well cast, providing consistently strong vocals and, in Furnell’s case, an almost relentless energy. Taylor’s soprano offers us some of the evenings most powerful vocals, while Panaretos’ portrayal of ‘Whatsername’ is gutsy and committed. As the Extraodinary Girl, Kaylah Attard (whose substantial talent was on show in last year’s national tour of Velvet) is yet another strong player, bringing it vocally while flying (literally) around the Concert Hall stage.
But as well as the actors, the members of Glenn Moorhouse’s tight six-piece band are stars of the show in their own right, with a powerhouse reproduction of Green Day’s score, making sure this has the rock concert feel that it must.
While American Idiot doesn’t quite fit the definition of a musical, this is a piece that has plenty to say and makes its point in an exuberant, high impact production.
AMERICAN IDIOT – NATIONAL TOUR DETAILS
Adelaide Festival Centre’s Her Majesty’s Theatre
January 19 – January 28, 2018
Tickets at bass.net.au or by phone on 131 246
February 2 – February 11, 2018
Tickets at ticketmaster.com.au or by phone on 136 100
February 23 – March 11, 2018
Tickets at ticketmaster.com.au or by phone on 136 100
Playhouse Theatre, QPAC
April 13 – April 21, 2018
Tickets at qpac.com.au or by phone on 136 246
Darwin Entertainment Centre
May 3 – May 6, 2018
Tickets at yourcentre.com.au or by phone on 08 8980 3333