Review: Green Day’s AMERICAN IDIOT at ArtsWest

AMERICAN IDIOT
Music by Green Day
Lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong
Book by Billie Joe Armstrong & Michael Mayer
Through October 11 2015
at ArtsWest
4711 California Ave SW
Seattle WA 98116
http://www.artswest.org


I’ve been staring blankly at the screen for a few minutes trying to figure out how to start. Part of me wants to analyze the material, the music, the performances, the direction, the staging. Part of me wants to lay bare my reaction to the energy and emotion and fire of the experience. It’s as though my left and right brains want to go all Siskel and Ebert on its fine theatrical ass. So before I jump in and let my hemispheres duke it out, I’ll say this: both sides of the corpus callosum aisle give ArtsWest’s production of AMERICAN IDIOT a high thumbs up.

People are talking about this production. They tend to fall into two main camps: “I hate the music (or, more extremely, the music is everything wrong with the theatre today) but the production is amazing” and “I love the music (or, more extremely, this is what stands a chance of keeping musical theatre alive) and the production is amazing.” I’m squarely in the second camp: I’ve loved Green Day since they were a local punk band in the Bay Area when I lived there in the late 80s and 90s, and when the album of AMERICAN IDIOT came out, saw it as a major leap forward for an already-powerful, thoughtful, creative band. The close thematic integration of the songs on the album make it clear that the work was written with an eye to other media and modes of presentation – not as thoroughly rock-operatic as, say, The Who’s TOMMY or Pink Floyd’s THE WALL in the fact that plot and characters aren’t right there in the material (and the band didn’t show all its cards about the narrative – it was likely not fully developed until the decision to take it to the stage and the participation of Michael Mayer) – but much more so than randomly strung-together jukebox shows like MOMMA MIA or JERSEY BOYS.

Let’s get the (small) complaints about the work out of the way to start with. The plot is, to put it generously, lean. There’s a punky off-scansion and loose rhyming to the lyrics that probably makes many Sondheim aficionados cringe. And it’s not exactly a Bechdel test all-star, with the key women’s parts existing to support the voyage of the central male trio.

But their story is both universal and specifically current – as current today, in its way, as it was when it hit vinyl (ok, MP3) over a decade ago. In post-American-dream America, Johnny, Will, and Tunny try to make their way being “how I’m supposed to be / In a land of make believe / That don’t believe in me.” They set out to leave suburbia for the city to find their souls and purposes, but Will finds out his girlfriend Heather is pregnant, and stays behind for a life of beer-weed-and-TV couch-potato resentment. Johnny and Tunny head out and each is seduced by what he sees as his icon: Johnny, under the spell of the nihilist drug-dealer St. Jimmy, replaces the numbness of suburbia with the numbness and soul-agony of addiction, Tunny, following the physically perfect, adored, and driven Favorite Son, replaces it with the numbness and physical agony of war.

I won’t follow the plot to the end; suffice it to say that loves are born and lost (Johnny’s with Whatsername and Tunny’s with the Extraordinary Girl who nurses him to health), lives are changed, and the tension between love and rage that has defined Johnny’s (and, by extension, everyone’s) existence gives birth to a hope for the future that is new.

The magic of AMERICAN IDIOT, though, is not its story. It starts with the music. But where it really comes together is in the execution: the astounding, raw, bare, beautiful performances by the huge cast, and even more, the amazing immersive recreation of the show under the creative team led by the frightening-in-all-the-best-ways mind of director Eric Ankrim.

I loved IDIOT on Broadway (twice, once with Billie Joe as St. Jimmy) and liked it a lot on tour. But the traditional staging, with its fourth-wall separation and Broadway-gypsies-go-pogo choreography, felt very much like a show around the music. The ArtsWest production takes no prisoners in its staging, including gutting the space to create three immersive tracks with off-stage action. I’ve seen immersive productions before, but they were usually more of the “sitting in a supper club or disco as the show unrolls around you” form of GREAT COMET and HERE LIES LOVE or the “walk through the mystery house from room to room” style. None of them prepared me for the complex yet totally involving Build-Your-Own-Adventure-on-steroids nature of this production. 

It’s hard to say where staging and direction ends and choreography begins – the action is equal parts tantrum, ballet, and 3D chess, with everything moving organically and perfectly. I saw it last week in one of the immersive tribes (the military tribe that tells Tunny’s story more deeply), and today observationally from one of the seats left intact in the rebuilt maze of ramps, stairs, and platforms; each experience enhances the other. In fact, it’s a testimony to the thoroughness of the vision that in several places the experience of the immersive tribes actually enhances the observational track: the moment, for instance, when Johnny, walking with his guitar, sings his loneliness in a crowd and by himself in BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS, is passed by two of the tribes, one to his left, one to his right, one moving forward, one moving back, and leaving him by himself is brilliantly powerful.

Not the least of the brilliance of the staging is keeping over thirty people – cast, ensemble, tribe guides – in motion and in the service of the work, all shining for their moments. The leads are stunningly good. Frederick Hagreen has added power and grace to the ensembles of many productions in the past few years, but has recently been seen front-and-center far more, and with his turn as Freddy Mercury with Seattle Men’s Chorus, his terrific Bobby Strong in SMT’s URINETOWN, and now as Johnny, his light burns ten times as bright. Michael Coale Grey is new to Seattle, but his rich résumé at great theatres like Goodspeed and Paper Mill is enhanced further by his sensitive and richly-sung turn as Will. Justin Huertas shows his breadth in every outing, and delivers a sharp and strongly sung Tunny, fueled by rage and doubt, never too broad and never too small. Trent Moury is one of the latest young actors to grow out of youth theatre into mainstage roles – Bernstein in last season’s ArtsWest production of DOGFIGHT, Billy Bigelow in the 5th’s Rising Star CAROUSEL – but the seductiveness of his St. Jimmy, the serpent in the garden of Johnny’s mind, is an adult role in a way I’ve never seen him play, and perfectly there. 

The women’s roles may not be as central, but they are played stunningly too. That Kirsten DeLohr Helland is electrifying as Whatsername is no surprise (nor is the fact that her insane range will take her from IDIOT to the most delicate and glowing Maria I’ve ever beheld in the 5th’s SOUND OF MUSIC later this year) – but her voice, full of raging belt and hovering pain of love, is a fresh experience every time. Jimmie Herrod’s performance of Extraordinary Girl is, well, extraordinary: so perfect and on-target that it never occurs for a second to call it a drag turn; rather, it is just a perfect pairing of a performer (and his voice) with a role. And Chelsea LaValley, whom I enjoyed greatly in stageRIGHT’s terrific FLOYD COLLINS, plays the somewhat thankless role of Heather with a great edge, a great vulnerability, and a great sound.

Singling out others in the ensemble is almost impossible – everyone has their moments to shine, and everyone makes everyone else shine brighter. So if I give shouts-out to the always-wonderful Ryan McCabe, the stunningly powerful Ann Cornelius, and the astounding physical-performing presence that is Jordan Taylor, it in no way diminishes my admiration for any member of the company – or, even more, for the company as a whole, one huge tribe that will probably always have this as one highlight of their ongoing lives in the theatre (which, given that some members of the cast are still in high school, should go on to many, many more triumphs).

That the show requires not only Ankrim’s powerful directing hand but three choreographers is not surprising, considering the amount of movement and the number of spaces in which it goes on at once. It’s a testimony to the organic creation that it is hard to say where Ankrim’s, Trina Mills’, Gabe Corey’s, and Shadou Mintone’s contributions begin and end (and to the fortitude of Production Stage Manager Melanie LeDuc that all of the moving parts move so seamlessly). 

On the musical front, performing a genuine rock score in a theatre context and not making it sound like an imitation is a hell of a challenge, one to which both R.J. Tancioco and Chris Ranney have risen multiple times before, and this is as good as any other they’ve done. (The superb orchestrations by Tom Kitt don’t hurt – there is a special warm place in my soul for Tom Kitt strings.) 

The rest of the design team are to be lauded for being willing to take every chance in this journey – and none more so than ArtsWest Artistic Director Mathew Wright. ArtsWest had grown stodgy, I think, in recent years – to the extent that I canceled my subscription before last season – but the repertory choices of last season’s acting Artistic Director, Annie Lareau, and especially Mat’s for this season bring the theatre back to the forefront of where hot young theatre is happening in town. The organization’s big bet on this production is evidenced in the gutting and reconstruction of the house to support the immersive staging – demonstrating that the theatre building itself is a microcosm of the dynamic, risk-taking institution.

AMERICAN IDIOT ends with the beautiful “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” – performed with the cast in and around the audience, and gathered, heart-circle-like, center stage. It repeats: “It’s something unpredictable but in the end is right / I hope you had the time of your life.”

I did. You will.

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