American Idiot

Theatre, Musicals
3 out of 5 stars
American Idiot
Photograph: Dylan Evans Phil Jamieson in American Idiot

Grinspoon's Phil Jamieson headlines the Australian premiere production of Green Day's punk Broadway hit

Let’s be honest: musicals and rock’n’roll operate on opposite ends of the coolness spectrum, and whenever they merge or cohabit a theatrical space, the results are faintly daggy. The first, and arguably greatest, rock musical was Hair, which premiered in 1967. This was the definition of cool, because it gave voice to a generation of the disaffected but recently politicised. It’s not a stretch to see American Idiot as a descendent of that ultimate tribal rock musical, even if it isn’t a particularly flattering comparison. Where Hair, even now, seems relevant and subversive, this musical based on Green Day’s 2004 album of the same name feels almost disempowering and hopelessly dated.

It isn’t the fault of the music. The album, which makes up almost the entirety of the show’s score, is full-throttled, conceptually ambitious and lushly melodic, and the orchestrations by Tom Kitt are often ingenious. There’s an unmistakable rage underpinning the music, a sense of one’s nation being hijacked or stolen, that should strike recognition in contemporary audiences. But given that the show’s central protagonists are three self-obsessed middle-class white boys – who spend virtually every moment of the piece complaining about their disaffection – it’s really hard to garner, let alone maintain, any sympathy for them.

The show opens on an assault of screen imagery and loud singing, the specific lyrics of which are hard to determine but seem to suggest youthful angst, rage and general pissed-off-ness. There’s a faint whiff of rock-eisteddfod realness in the choreography, lots of fist-pumping and ridgy-didge hand gestures. There’s a girl-power vs boy-power separation of the sexes going on, in a way that suggests little has evolved since West Side Story. But it isn’t until about 15 minutes in, when we start to dread that this is the show, that a story emerges. It’s about 25 minutes in when we realise that we were better off without one.

The story of American Idiot is desultory. Mates Johnny (Ben Bennett), Tunny (Connor Crawford) and Will (Alex Jeans) decide to leave the shitty city they live in to make it as musicians – we know this because guitars are placed in front of them – but then it turns out that only Johnny goes off to pursue this goal because Tunny joins the military and Will stays on his couch and gets his girl knocked up. Johnny hooks up with a chick called Whatsername (Phoebe Panaretos) and gets hooked on heroin. So we have heroin-boy, military amputee (oh, sorry, spoiler alert: he gets a shell in the leg) and couch potato, vying for most pathetic American Idiot in a world jam-packed with them.

The whole thing would be interminable were it not for some spirited performances and a total dedication to an ideal. Normally, Australian audiences see this kind of imported product as a fait accompli: overseas blocking, international directors, minimal local colour. This production is entirely conceived and executed by Brisbane artists, with an Australian cast and crew. Technically, it’s first class. The set (Josh McIntosh) and video design (Craig Wilkinson) are dynamic and versatile, and Matthew Marshall’s lighting, while rarely subtle, makes much use of the red, white and blue.

But local artistry, cut off from the watchful eye of international producers, can also mean decisions that boggle the mind. A woman clad in a white niqab who descends from the heavens only to disrobe and fly about the stage suggestively, is so off-putting it looks like provocation – I Dream of Jeannie had a more sophisticated relationship to exoticism than this. The female characters are so thin, so dependent on the existence of a male character to justify their existence, that it becomes impossible to care about the central figures. Given that American Idiot premiered in 2010, it’s fascinating to see how far we’ve come, both politically and socially, since then.

The performances are solid, especially Panaretos and Jeans, and the inclusion of Phil Jamieson of Grinspoon fame brings the only true rock voice onto the stage, but Bennett makes a fairly wan lead. It’s impossible to know if Linden Furnell would have been any better, but his unceremonious dumping at the last minute will reverberate through the sector for some time to come. It’s the only thing about this show that’s in tune with the zeitgeist, which otherwise seems stuck in the kind of inarticulate self-pitying funk of times past.

By: Tim Byrne

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