I carried delicious anticipation and a measure of trepidation to the opening of American Idiot at Lakewood Playhouse – anticipation because it is such a highly praised musical, and trepidation because what little I had heard of Green Day’s music seemed ear splitting with garbled lyrics. I was pleasantly surprised that the music was not too loud, and that I could hear every word of the lyrics. There are free earplugs available in the lobby if you are concerned. Just ask. And while there is a lot of angry punk music, there are also a lot of tender songs of love and loss.
With music by Green Day and lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong, book by Armstrong and Michael Mayer, American Idiot is based on a Green Day album. The story is told almost exclusively through the music, with the only spoken words being from the dairy entries and letters Johnny (Mark Alford) writes to his mother.
American Idiot tells the stories of three young men determined to escape the boredom of their small-town lives. Johnny goes to New York to become a musician, has a sad relationship with “Whatsername” (Dani Hobbs) and becomes addicted to drugs that he gets from St. Jimmy (Shannon Burch). Tunny (Tony Williams) goes with him but is soon disillusioned and joins the military and is shipped to Iraq, where he is severely wounded in battle and is nursed by “The Extraordinary Girl” (Ashley Roy, who is also the show’s choreographer). They fall in love. The third member of the trio, Will (Cooper Harris-Turner), stays home to be with his pregnant girlfriend, Heather (Kiana Norman-Slack).
The show is a post 9-11 rock opera is the tradition of Rent and The Who’s Tommy, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. There are more than 30 punk rock songs performed by a large ensemble cast with the backing of a strong eight-piece band conducted by Deborah Lynn Armstrong. The choreography by Roy is frantic and athletic. The marvel of it is that it is intricately designed to look like a bunch of young people moving to their own inner beat in a near train wreck of walking, running and dancing.
The energy and the anger, the extremes of emotion, and the enthusiastic way every member of the cast throws themselves into their roles is amazing.
Although it is an exciting and talented ensemble cast, Alford’s Johnny is clearly the main character. I’ve seen Alford similarly throw himself wholeheartedly into many roles such as Johnny Rotten in Harlequin Productions’ A Rock ‘N’ Roll Twelfth Night, but never before with such extreme emotion (his drug overdose scene is almost unbearable). Harris-Turner nicely underplays Will as quiet and depressed. Also outstanding are Williams as the sweet and tragic Williams, Norman-Slack as the young mother, and Burch as the strange and mesmerizing drug dealer.
The costumes by Diane Runkel, from the authentic ’90s punk clothing to the military uniforms, are spot on. Kate Wilson’s lighting adds drama, and James Venturini’s set is suitably grungy.
Overall, this is a wonderful achievement by director John Munn and his cast and crew, sweeping audiences into the lives and the all-too humanity of a city full of teens and young adults, and doing it all with nothing but music and dance.
Warning: there is strong adult language and graphic depiction of drug use.
(This review appears courtesy The News Tribune.)
WHAT American Idiot
WHEN 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m., through Jan. 18
WHERE Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
HOW MUCH $25-$30
LEARN MORE (253) 588-0042 | Lakewood Playhouse