An odd combination of nostalgia and existentialism, American Idiot continues to remain incredibly current.
more than just a musical
American Idiot is not a traditional musical in any sense. It might be better described as a collection of songs from the Green Day album of the same name depicting the paths realistically available from the American Dream. It is more than a jukebox musical. The songs are snapshots of situations that haunt American society, like the dreariness of suburbia, joining the military for lack of other options, disaffection, and teenage pregnancy due to lack of adequate education or termination.
The musical amounts to a controlled existential outburst at the current (2004) state of American political and domestic culture. The plot follows Johnny (Nick Dore) as his alter ego, St Jimmy (Sorrel Brown) leads Johnny to make disastrous choices as he tries to navigate life outside the suburbs. Even though there is a narration, the main action takes place within the songs themselves. This means that the burden falls squarely on the actors to build the characters and tell the story without having the regular tools of musical theatre like dialogue or songs that fit neatly into and further the plot.
Overall, it was a strong showing by the cast. The songs meld into each other so that it seems more like an exhibition of Green Day’s work rather than a musical; a rock concert rather than a show with a flowing narrative. The creative team pulled out all the stops in order to create a typical music concert-like atmosphere that did not appear to be grounded in naturalism. For example, Andrew Laidlaw’s set design was simple in that it played with the rock concert aspect of the musical by hiding pieces of set that would contextualise the action onstage within black concert equipment boxes. The lighting design by Olly Levett was phenomenal. Even though some cues appear late, the lighting added to the atmosphere within songs and helped to guide us through the events, not shying away from using effects that would more commonly be seen at live music concerts. Whilst the whole ‘punk’ aspect was interacted with, at times it felt as if that’s all there was to it and it could have been leaned further into. The emphasis on the concert aspects meant that the musical shied away from being the political statement that it is intended to be.
All the cast are strong performers, and it is clear that they are familiar with and passionate about the source material. Brown as St. Jimmy is particularly talented in the sense that she completely thwarts expectations. She darts around the stage with incredible energy, and always draws our attention simply by being the most dynamic presence onstage. Tara Blackburn (Whatshername), is also another interesting case. In most of her appearances, she does not steal the spotlight, for good reason, as the character is herself a plot point. However, Blackburn’s performance of Letterbomb is a much needed energy boost after 21 Guns and a number of songs that blend together into anonymity. In Letterbomb, Blackburn steals the show as she performs a spirited dance number whilst performing what can only be interpreted as an incredibly empowering anthem.
Of course, the hits like American Idiot and Holiday are memorable and live up to their reputation and hype. The one that is by far the most touching and speaks to the heart of the entire musical is Wake Me Up When September Ends. This is when the show’s true message came to the forefront the most. It is an emotional moment which was so well executed that it demonstrated the care taken by the actors and creative team to create an incredibly thoughtful performance required by the song.
Incredibly current, this musical is difficult to watch at times because of how applicable it is to the current domestic situation in the United States. This production is lacking, because the emphasis appears to be on the Green Day part of the musical rather than the political and cultural commentary that is at the heart of the album. American Idiot is more than just a musical, but that does not come across in this production.