Theater Review: 'American Idiot' punk rocks the alien nation
When Green Day played "American Idiot" at the MTV Europe Music Awards last November, Billie Joe Armstrong changed the last line of the opening verse to "subliminal mind-Trump America."
If you get the point of that change and endorse the sentiment, then you are going to love the stage musical version of "American Idiot" that opened Thursday night at the Underground. If you are insulted by that line, then you should probably avoid this punk rock diatribe.
The story follows three disaffected young men: Johnny (Bryan Burns) who leaves for the big city where he turns to heroin, Tunny (Michael Hasenmueller), who is seduced by a television ad to join the army, and Will (Tyler Goebel), who ignores his pregnant girlfriend (Kaeli Melin) to wallow in a world of beer and pot.
We are five songs into "American Idiot" before it takes its foot off the pedal. The title song, the "Jesus of Suburbia" suite, an absolutely killer "Holiday" and the poignant "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" make up a 20-minute musical thrill ride.
As St. Jimmy, Matias Valero looks like Billie Joe Armstrong dressed up as Neil Gaiman's Sandman and is a wicked, whirling dervish candy dispenser when he explodes on stage.
Turning "American Idiot" into what is essentially a sung-through stage musical sees the same transmutation as when Pete Townsend similarly transformed The Who's "Tommy" — song after song is renewed and elevated by the hellacious harmonies meticulously created by vocal director Andy Kust.
Armstrong was inspired by George W. Bush to write these songs, but half the country is going find the line, "Now everybody do the propaganda/And sing along to the age of paranoia" even more relevant today. Then again, post-adolescent angst is always ageless.
The show loses rhetorical potency in the second half because instead of switch off, switch on and explode, the characters opt to tune out, turn on and drop out. When a character known as Whatsername (Vanessa Barr) lets out a primal scream during "Letterbomb," you understand her frustration with these guys.
The powerful opening polemics are replaced by Will's numbness ("Give Me Novocaine"), Tunny's longing ("Are We the Waiting") and Johnny's overwhelming regret ("Whatsername").
Several times the audience refrained from applauding. Not because of failings in the performances, but because the messages matter much more than the medium in this show.
Director-choreographer Amber Burns makes the most of her high energy 17-person ensemble in the group numbers, but there were also subtler moments, involving figures dressed in black or a piece of rubber tubing.
For a brief moment in time "American Idiot" was slated for the Playhouse main stage, but the intimacy and the acoustics of the Underground totally help make this show.
Ashley Werely's set design is a mixture of scaffolding, roll cabs, telephone poles, and a pair of projection screens. Beth Brophy directs a tight seven-piece band, including violin and cello. Bonus points for Jonathan Sickerdick's drum work before "St. Jimmy."
Finally, I have never seen a curtain call where the audience listened and sang along rather than applauded, but it was a fitting benediction to this show.
If you go:
What: "American Idiot"
Where: The Underground, 506 W. Michigan St.
When: 7:30 Thursday-Saturday until Feb. 18
Tickets: $20 adults, $18 students at duluthplayhouse.org