Generation X has something to say in “American Idiot,” and goes straight for the jugular to get our attention.
New Line Theatre’s art provocateurs shake the rafters in the explosive regional premiere of the 2010 Tony-award winning musical, an in-your-face introspection for anyone disillusioned, submissive or seething in post-9/11 U.S.A.
Green Day’s 2004 punk rock opera “American Idiot,” Grammy for Best Rock Album, has been formatted as a Broadway show, with additional songs from their “21st Century Breakdown” album and unreleased material.
Frontman and songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong also collaborated with Michael Mayer to write the book, attacking Bush’s presidency, corporate greed and warmongering, and blaming media for fueling paranoia and apathy.
As pulsing power chords took over the black box stage, electric youth sprang into position, fully charged with attitude, their voices teeming with urgency and passion in the ferocious title number, and maintained momentum from there.
The young ensemble is an exceptionally talented group, their solo vocals robust and harmonies glorious. The show’s structure forces them to fill in the blanks about their jaded characters’ confusion, and they do so with a fierce conviction, make us feel their pain and anger.
A trio of numb youths want to flee the stifling conformity of suburbia as the bright lights of the big city, and all those temptations, beckon. But Will (sturdy Brendan Ochs) is left behind when his girlfriend Heather (luminous Larissa White) becomes pregnant. Grappling with a baby and their own desires, the couple clash. He’s agitated (“Tales of Another Broken Home”), she’s distressed (“Dearly Beloved”) and it doesn’t end well (a soulful “Too Much, Too Soon”).
Tunny (expressive Frederick Rice, of Belleville, in stunning debut) is enticed to join the Army by a righteous military recruiter Favorite Son (mighty Kevin Corpuz, of O’Fallon). He is severely wounded in the War on Terror, forced to adapt, in agony, to a world gone mad. But he survives through the loving care of Extraordinary Girl (Sicily Mathenia, exhibiting powerhouse vocals). Rice excels in “Are We the Waiting” and “Before the Lobotomy.”
Self-aware Johnny (rock-solid Evan Fornachon), aka “Jesus of Suburbia,” is our brash rebel without a cause. His inner demons threaten to choke him as he wallows in drug hazes in his scummy environment. He forgets to seize the day — and take showers.
He falls in with St. Jimmy (smooth Chris Kernan, formerly of Belleville), a cocky and creepy drug dealer — or not? — and falls in love with Whatshername (force of nature Sarah Porter), a flawed but resourceful girl. Will he continue his reckless ways, self-destruct or see the light?
Fornachon, always in control, moves effortlessly between the angst and cynicism, leading a strong “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and wistfully delivering “Last of the American Girls,” and “When It’s Time.” The ever-committed Porter is impressive in “She’s a Rebel” and “Letterbomb.”
Playing multiple roles is an energetic unit — Corpuz, Omega Jones, Clayton Humburg, Jeremy Hyatt, Sean Michael, Cameisha Cotton, Ariel Saul, Tanya Sapp and Gabe Taylor. The company is particularly memorable with audacious “Holiday,” a vigorous “21 Guns” and the rousing finale “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” — with six cast members strumming guitars.
While not as indulged and pampered as Millennials, Gen X’ers grew up comfortable in subdivisions with finely manicured lawns. But all generations must rage against the machine, that’s their birthright, as they find their way: “I Don’t Care” and “Know Your Enemy.”
Their bonds with each other are evident, however. Will leads a plaintive “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” joined by his band of brothers, and the three reunite with a poignant “We’re Coming Home Again.”
With minimal dialogue and familiar songs guiding the story, “American Idiot” resembles Billy Joel’s “Moving Out,” another coming-of-age concept with a war shaping content, too, and “Rent,” with its empty young adults living in squalor but loving each other. But it’s definitely rooted in realism and speaks to today, too.
Armstrong’s lyrics show his maturation as a songwriter, delivering both blistering screeds and touching, hopeful ballads. “American Idiot” was Green Day’s seventh and most successful album.
With clarity of concept, directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy understand the material enough to let it breathe — and their cast conveyed nuances in both loud and soft moments. They also moved the 90-minute show along briskly.
The show’s sound is big and bold, naturally. Sue Goldford brilliantly conducted composer Tom Kitt’s (“High Fidelity,” “Next to Normal”) astute arrangements and orchestrations, elevating the material from jukebox to extraordinary.
The superb musicians included two virtuoso guitar players D. Mike Bauer and Aaron Doerr, with Andrew Gurney on bass, Twinda Murry on violin, Jessica Nations on cello, and Clancy Newell on percussion.
The rock hits are so entrenched in modern pop culture, it’s a wonder people didn’t burst into song from the audience. But they controlled those impulses because the vocals were of such high caliber.
In his scenic design, Rob Lippert used the floor space’s length as a way to depict the trio’s lives — Will stuck on a couch far left, Tunny in combat and convalescence far right and Johnny’s shabby apartment in the center. It’s framed in mock newspapers screaming alienation, with “Obey” graffiti dominant.
When the cast filled up the stage, they commanded the space, but when soloists were spotlighted in the far corners, it was sometimes hard to see the action, depending on your vantage point and the lighting positions.
The adult subject matter is intense, and the actors are all in, investing in these characters as they try to make sense in unstable times.
The performers stand out in this rant against complacency and our precarious state of the union, and it’s not mindless karaoke by any means. There is a complexity and depth to “American Idiot” that one might not have recognized in merely radio play.
Extra: New Line Theatre’s Offline program presents “The Making of New Line’s American Idiot” at 7 p.m. March 22 at the Marcelle Theater. You can meet the design and production staff, and ask them questions about bringing this wild piece of theater to the New Line stage.
- Who: New Line Theatre
- When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through March 26
- Where: Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, St. Louis
- Tickets: $25 for adults and $20 for students/seniors on Fridays and Saturdays; and $20 for adults and $15 for students/seniors on Thursdays. www.newlinetheatre.com; Metrotix: 314-534-1111
- Discounts: for students, educators and military.