As a musical theatre fan growing up in New Zealand, I was fairly limited in what I could actually see on stage. Amateur theatre groups were doing shows such as Oliver!, The King and I and the ever popular… Guys and Dolls. Professionally, we were treated to the big Lloyd Webber shows such as Cats and The Phantom Of The Opera. While I’d still name these shows among my favourites, as a teenager I found it hard to relate to my peers when I was listening to “Sing once again with me, our strange duet…” versus their “Dear Stan, I wrote you buy you still ain’t calling. I left my cell, my pager and my home phone at the bottom…” It wasn’t until I discovered Jonathan Larson’s Rent that I realised musical theatre could be relevant and the music I was hearing on the radio was being performed on Broadway and the West End stage. Rent eventually gave way to Spring Awakening which combined a classical story and setting with Duncan Sheik’s broody antsy punk-inspired score. It was then announced that punk rock band Green Day’s new album American Idiot was being released as a concept album for their rock-opera of the same name, combining the music I heard on the radio with my favourite art form. I raced to the record store (we still had them in those days) and got my copy of American Idiot, committed it to memory and waited impatiently for the musical to premiere in New York. The show’s original run at Berkley in 2009 was an immediate success and the show soon opened on Broadway where it enjoyed 422 performances, closing in 2011.
When I moved to London a little over two years ago, I was excited to see a lot shows I hadn’t had the opportunity to see. American Idiot was on the top of that list and I was incredibly excited to review Sell A Door Theatre Company’s touring production at The Arts Theatre.
American Idiot centres around disaffected youth. Angry and disappointed by the America they live in, three friends Johnny, Will and Tunny attempt to leave their suburban town and parental restrictions in search of freedom of expression, love and life. Just as they are about to leave Will’s girlfriend Heather falls pregnant. Leaving Will to stay home to work out his relationship and look after the baby, Johnny and Tunny follow their original pan and head to the big city. Tunny quickly finds the big city isn’t for him and looks for purpose in the military, being shipped off to war soon after. Now alone, Johnny turns to drugs and discovers a side of himself he’d rather not have met.
The Arts Theatre run of American Idiot features recording artist Newton Faulkner and Amelia Lily of The X Factor fame. There’s been lots of chatter recently about the validity of casting pop stars in musicals or ‘stunt’ casting due to a person’s celebrity. In American Idiot both Faulkner and Lily perform with vigour, conviction and seem perfectly cast in their roles as ‘Johnny’ and ‘Whatsername’. As the American Idiot Faulkner has a tough job in performing ‘Johnny’, not only is the part vocally challenging and varied with songs such as the slow melodic Boulevard of Broken Dreams in contrast to the electric rock hit Jesus Of Suburbia; the audience needs to empathise with ‘Johnny’ as he expresses his frustration in ‘Jingletown’ USA, fall in love with him and spiral in and out of addiction. No mean feat for any actor, however Fauklner handles the marathon-like journey of ‘Johnny’ with a subtle quiet power that entices the audience, making his portrayal of ‘Johnny’ easily passionate, relatable and at points scarily believable.
As friends ‘Will’ and ‘Tunny’ Steve Rushton and Alexis Gerred offer strong vocal performances. Rushton’s ‘Will’ doubles as performer and band member, often stepping into the band to play guitar. While not part of his characters story, this seems totally appropriate within the high energy rock concert style of the show. Gerred’s gives a strong performance as ‘Tunny’, domineering the stage in each solo allowing his characters struggle through complacency, finding purpose in the military and recovering from this experience to come to life. Although vocally strong, in earlier scenes ‘Johnny’, ‘Will’ and ‘Tunny’s friendship seemed somewhat forced and unbelievable. Almost trying to hard at playing friends rather than being natural and showing what great friends the actors must have been at this point in their run together. Sometimes less is more.
‘St Jimmy’ has always been my favourite character in American Idiot. From Tony Vincent’s original performance to Billie Joe Armstong’s portrayal, I’ve always seen the dark, archaic, somewhat camp character of drug-dealing ‘Jimmy’ to be equal parts repulsive and totally inviting. In Sell A Door’s production resident director Lucas Rush plays ‘Jimmy’ with inspired effect. Like ‘The Joker’ in Batman, ‘St Jimmy’ is the villain of the story, leading our ‘Jesus Of Suburbia’ hero ‘Johnny’ into drug addiction, while laughing maniacally. Rush’s onstage energy, highly stylised costume and disobedient attitude displays his belief and passion in American Idiot as a piece of storytelling and it’s easy to see why this production is such a success, with Rush at the helm.
Sara Perk’s static industrial multi-levelled set design works extremely well for the varied locations of American Idiot. Fitting into the Art’s Theatre perfectly, the set transports audience members from suburbia, fantasy scenes, war, A 7/11 convenience store to the big city and beyond. My favourite set element was a fully stocked 7/11 convenience store that cleverly turns into a bus headed for the big city, with working head lights and a less than desirable bus driver. Tim Deiling’s lighting design is perfect for this show, accentuating moments in the score with flashing lights and creating great sweeping beams of light creating a rock concert type effect. One practically beautiful moment came towards the end of the show when in my sightline I could see ‘St Jimmy’ standing lit on the second level, with ‘Whatsername’ lying on a bed with a guitar propped up against her and ‘Jonny’ lit downstage. A beam of light hit the guitar, reflecting three beams of light off into the audience. The combination of this effect form my seat gave me goose-bumps and I wish I had a photo to accompany this review. If you’d like to experience this magical moment, I was sitting in Row F, in the stalls.
Sell A Door’s production of American Idiot is everything you could want from a modern sung-through rock opera, it’s loud, in your face and totally brilliant. With powerhouse performances, the well-known songs are perfectly let loose on an appreciate audience who are nostalgically transported back to their own teenage rebellion and as a result the energy in the auditorium is palpable throughout.
Reviewed by Stuart James
Photo: Johan Persson
American Idiot plays at the Arts Theatre until 25 September 2016. Tickets