Regional Reviews: Phoenix
While the album centered on the antihero "Jesus of Suburbia," the musical expands on that to focus on best friends Johnny, Will and Tunny who are all frustrated at life and the world they live in, so each goes on a journey of self-discovery. The disillusionment these three friends have, combined with their anger at the world and the chaos, confusion, and the simply mundane moments of everyday life, are what are entrenched in Green Day's lyrics and so eloquently portrayed through this musical adaptation of the album. We understand why these three rage against their world, and themselves, as they choose different ways to escape their post 9/11 suburbia. Johnny chooses drugs and Tunny chooses the military while Will finds his future chosen for him.
The show features some of Green Day's biggest hit songs, including "21 Guns," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams", "Holiday", "Wake Me Up When September Ends," and "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)." While the score for this show is stellar, I have some issues with American Idiot that are due to the fact that it is a largely sung-through musical with a very minimal book by Michael Mayer, the director of the original Broadway production of this show. The lack of dialogue makes the plot extremely basic while also somewhat convoluted. It also forces the success of the narrative to hinge on Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong's lyrics. While his lyrics are clear and full of imagery, they don't always work especially well to tell a cohesive story. The biggest of the problems is in the character of St. Jimmy, Johnny's drug-dealing alter ego, who is extremely important to the plot of the show. I have to believe that anyone who isn't familiar with the album or this musical will have no idea that St. Jimmy doesn't exist except in Johnny's mind. There is also the issue of the show's ending. Not to give too much away, but while the three leads all learn and grow over the journey of the show the ending is a bit of a downer and also feels a little under baked.
Stray Cat can't be faulted for the shortcomings in the book, and director Ron May does his best to fill in some of the gaps. Especially effective are the opening and closing video sequences that not only clearly establish the time of the show but also use imagery at the end to show that we are still living in the angst-filled land of broken dreams that the characters felt after 9/11. May also keeps his direction clear and concise which helps to not overpower the plot. Musical director Andy Kust leads a stellar five piece band that achieves some stunning sounds and choreographer Lisa Starry delivers an abundance of superb and engaging movement that adds to and play off of May's active and dynamic direction.
The cast that May has found help make this a truthful and believable tale, with no pretension or false moves made throughout, led by the three male leads, Nicholas John Gearing, David Samson and Eric Boudreau, as Johnny, Tunny and Will. All three characters are forced into adulthood and struggle with their own inner demons and these three actors all effectively portray the vulnerability their characters feel at times through expressive facial gestures, body movement and raw, emotional filled singing. Gearing is especially moving with the sweet love song "When It's Time" but also expressively clear in his soul searching delivery of "Wake Me Up When September Ends." Samson and Boudreau are just as good in their roles, with both achieving a clarity as the soldier who struggles to heal and the stoner who struggles with the responsibilities of fatherhood.
In supporting parts, Alan Khoutakoun achieves a rich, seductive, calculated and winning portrayal of Johnny's drug dealing alter-ego St. Jimmy, while Breona Conrad is rough around the edges yet vulnerable as Whatsername, the woman Johnny falls for. Victoria Fairclough and Megan Moylan are the two women that Tunny and Will are in love with, and they deliver clear vocals and good portrayals. The very enthusiastic and hardworking ensemble is composed of a youthful cast that, along with the leads, form a cohesive group with a wonderful rapport.
Creative elements are sublime with the combination of Eric Beeck's simple yet clear scenic design, Dallas Nichols' stellar media design, and Daniel Davisson's stunning lighting providing a constantly changing environment with imagery that transports the production through time and space. With misaligned rock concert posters covering every inch of the set walls, and what appear to be thousands of pieces of crumpled up paper thrown across the stage, the cluttered set design is akin to the impatient and ADD riddled youth of the story. Nichols' chaotic projections of jumbled video images and photographs wash over the audience and add to but don't distract from the story. Danny Chihuahua's costumes are perfect, including non-stop designs for the ensemble that efficiently transform them from frustrated youth to solders and business workers and back again. Pete Bish's sound design provides a nice balance to the small Tempe Center for the Arts Studio space, though the balance at the opening night performance was slightly off, especially in the beginning, when the band overpowered the singing so much that the lyrics could not be clearly heard.
While American Idiot accurately portrays the angst and ordeals the youth of America, and many others, felt post 9/11, and this production is full of youthful exuberance and sheer energy, it will most likely have a different outcome depending on how you approach it. Some Green Day purists may feel like the soundtrack of their lives formed by the album has been defaced. Those who were adults with responsibilities when the album came out may not feel connected and empathetic for the whining characters who shrug responsibilities. But for those who know all too well the hardship of dealing with broken dreams and fighting your own inner demons, American Idiot will most likely prove a raw, emotional experience. While I can't say I'm exactly in that last group, I do believe the experience of hearing these songs performed live by a talented cast and with clear direction and winning creative elements helps to overcome some of the shortfalls in the show's narrative. In that respect this Stray Cat production delivers exceptionally well.
American Idiot at the Stray Cat Theatre runs through July 16th, 2016, with performances at with performances at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480 227-1766 or at straycattheatre.org.
Music by Green Day