Green Day’s American Idiot – Theatre Review: Stray Cat Theatre, Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe

Idiot poster

With its core audience in mind, Green Day’s American Idiot is perhaps the perfect show for Ron May’s Stray Cat Theatre to conclude its better-than-average 2015-2016 season.  But as one chapter closes, another begins.  The show is also what was needed for those bad-boy felines to make an immediate mark at their new, permanent location, Tempe Center for the Arts.  After this weekend’s opening, the theatre may still be reeling from a case of what-just-happenedGreen Day’s American Idiot tore the roof off, and probably did some damage to the walls, as well.

Depending on age, attitude and, more importantly, musical taste, not all rock and roll fans warm to Green Day, and that’s a major hurdle to climb when it comes to enjoying the show.  Personally, in a house where Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention has played on a practical continuous loop for decades, comparatively speaking, hearing American Idiot for the first time felt more like listening to a bunch of kids throwing pop/rock musical tantrums. Occasionally something surfaced that sounded interesting, then it was back to more tantrums.  As for inspiring a musical, the album was probably the last thing you’d expect to hear playing on Broadway.

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Yet it did.  And it was a home run. The band’s simple though raucous anthem to angst, frustration and the sense of being trapped in a media-induced hell hit its target.  With additional songs from the band’s 21st Century Breakdown album plus a bonus track concluding the musical taken from the 1997 album, Nimrod, Green Day’s American Idiot had a full score.  Let’s not kid ourselves, this isn’t Broadway, not in the traditional sense.  It’s more like strapping into your seat for a ninety-minute, uninterrupted rock ‘n roller coaster ride where frustration and Green Day’s temper come at you with the full velocity of an out-of-control tornado, and little concern for those who don’t like it; they need to just get out of the way.

An issue with American Idiot, particularly those fresh to the music with little prior knowledge, is one of coherence.  Without knowing much about the show ahead of seeing it, there’s an inherent problem of trying to figure out what’s going on.  Lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong may write some great songs, but he doesn’t tell a good story.  With a book co-written by Michael Mayer, the show revolves around the lives of three young guys, Johnny (Nicholas John Gearing), Will (Eric Boudreau) and Tunny (David Samson) who are frustrated and wasting their time.  They’re frustrated because they’re aware that they’re wasting their time, and they decide to do something about it.  After picking up more beer from the nearby 7-Eleven, always a good source for inspiring life-changing decisions for the generally uninspired, they decide to pack their bags and head to the big city to see what life might offer elsewhere.

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Stray Cat’s presentation becomes thrilling early into the show once you realize that Ron May isn’t simply recreating what was seen before – both the Broadway production and the following tour left many dazzled with ears ringing and no clue of what had just unfolded – but with several directorial flourishes and inventions of his own, plus outstanding work from Lisa Starry’s high-energy choreography, much of that needed narrative clarity falls into place.  There are still moments when you may not know why certain things are occurring or where the characters are in relation to each other, but the general flow of events and their reasons for being are considerably clearer.  With a book such as American Idiot, that’s an achievement.

When you first enter the theatre, the first thing you’ll notice in Eric Beek’s effectively sparse set is the large TV monitor running an endless loop of clips from turn of the new century daytime television.  The giant screen with its fractured edges looks as though it’s literally splashed across the back wall as images of a younger Jerry Springer. Ricki Lake, and those lengthy sponsored ads of the Juiceman and Body by Jake run continuously.  It’s part of the message of Green Day’s title song where the never-ending repetition of watching countless hours of mundane electronic images creates a sense of idiocy in the viewing public, particularly the uneducated youth unable to properly express themselves or communicate without the need to drop f-bombs in every sentence, or the wherewithal to turn the set off and simply read something interesting.  It’s also curious that one character, Tunny, having rejected all that he sees presented on TV is inspired to join the military after watching a television commercial.  The sequence itself and the song Favorite Son is one of the production’s highlights.

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So, too, is the moment of girl power when Whatsername (Breona Conrad) and the female ensemble of tough, punk rock ‘n roll chicks tell the show’s excellent band to f-off their stage so that they can take the instruments and perform the angry Letterbomb, sounding like The Runaways at their boisterous and unruly best.  Plus, Alan Khoutakoun’s androgynous drug-dealing character St. Jimmy grabs your attention by appearance alone.  Looking thoroughly pleased with himself as he struts the stage, comfortable in his heels and tight leather pants, he’s Green Day’s Acid Queen, injecting courage then ultimately misery into Johnny’s veins,

May also does something interesting with the score.  Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) was never a part of the libretto.  It was an extra song, an encore, delivered by the whole cast standing in line, each accompanying themselves on an acoustic guitar.  It was meant as a musical equivalent of the cast saying thank you for coming and we hope you had the time of your life.  Here, the song is incorporated into the production as a concluding number to the plot, sung not as an acoustic piece but presented with the same power as everything that preseeded it, allowing the cast to take a more traditional bow when all is done.

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The show is not as profound as it may appear and its superficial political message of a media-induced society creating a generation of idiots won’t ring true for everyone – it’s an old message often repeated by the young as if discovering it for the first time; plus ending with a film clip declaring all politicians should f-off may elicit cheers but it’s hardly the answer to anything – but that’s all decoration and inspiration from Green Day’s source material.  Far more noteworthy is what Stray Cat has done with it at Tempe Center for the Arts.  

It’s a musical with a visceral punch; it attacks the senses, not engages, and that’s what audiences seem to respond to the most.  The end result, even if Stray Cat’s overall design is somewhat scaled down, is a production far more enjoyable, and certainly more coherent, than the professional tour.

Pictures courtesy of John Groseclose

For more including times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the official Stray Cat Theatre website

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