American Idiot

Theatre, Musicals
3 out of 5 stars
American Idiot 2018 Sydney Opera House supplied production still feat Original Australian Cast Feb 2017 Phil Jamieson photographer credit Dylan Evans
Photograph: Dylan Evans Phil Jamieson in American Idiot

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

Many might be sick of seeing his face on screens, but it seems appropriate that a show called “American Idiot” would open with projected footage of Donald Trump. Is there a greater symbol for American idiocy or a more contemporary expression of the purposelessness that’s set in for many Americans who have been failed by their governments?

To some extent, Trump found himself in the White House by promising positive change for the disaffected members of suburbia portrayed in this musical. History will tell whether he delivers any of that or whether he simply managed to hoodwink an entire fearful nation. But this production directed by Craig Ilott has a clear position on the insanity and inanity of Trump’s America.

Punk rock mega-group Green Day’s lauded 2004 album American Idiot was written in the midst of George W. Bush’s presidency and responded to much of what was happening in America at the time, including the Iraq war. Given that the band members dubbed the massively popular album a “rock opera”, it wasn’t long until Broadway came knocking, and a stage adaptation featuring all the major hits – the title song, ‘Holiday’, ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’, ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ – premiered in 2009. They're stitched together with only the briefest passages of dialogue, and the focus is almost entirely on the music.

This new Australian version is up-to-the second (there’s at one point a projection that says “Will the real stable genius please stand up?”) and applies the frustration apparent in Green Day’s 2004 songs directly to America in 2018.

At the centre of the musical are three young men who dream of escaping their suburban ennui. They’re best friends and want to find an existence together that’s a little less awful, but things don’t go to plan. Johnny (Linden Furnell) moves to an unnamed city where he falls deeply in love as he falls into drug addiction. Will (Alex Jeans) never gets out of town – his girlfriend becomes pregnant and he sticks with her in what turns out to be a completely dysfunctional relationship. Tunny (Connor Crawford) ends up seduced by Uncle Sam and heads off to war.

Like Hair before it, American Idiot gives voice to young people who want a social justice revolution but find themselves getting lost – or maybe just worn out – along the way. And like Hair, it’s not so much narrative-driven as it is driven by music, performances and staging.

The songs penned by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong have a certain theatrical sweep. Tom Kitt’s orchestrations, and a wonderfully tight and expressive Australian band led by Glenn Moorhouse, have given the score even more dramatic weight. There’s strong singing across the field: all three lead men equip themselves well, but it’s Phoebe Panaretos who impresses most as the mysterious “Whatshername”, bringing scorching vocals to her solos in ‘21 Guns’ and ‘Letterbomb’. Similarly Phil Jamieson (frontman of Australian rock outfit Grinspoon) brings some serious grungy heft to this ensemble of musical theatre performers.

Creating choreography for a punk-rock musical is no easy task, but Lucas Newland’s work is mostly convincing: it’s a heavy, contemporary style that avoids many of the pitfalls of bringing dance to heavier rock. He and Ilott work well together to create a physical language that fills the stage.

One of the major difficulties this production faces is that although the Opera House’s Concert Hall allows for a certain rock scale you couldn’t achieve in most theatres – Matthew Marshall’s lighting and projections by Optikal Bloc make this feel like a rock concert – it keeps most of the audience at a distance from the action. That’s a problem given that there’s little dialogue to help the audience connect with the characters on stage – when you add the physical distance into this equation, it’s even tougher.

Even with its inability to effectively develop its characters, American Idiot is always entertaining, and the musical standards never slip. For Green Day fans, the show is irresistible, and those with only a passing familiarity with their work may develop a deeper appreciation for their sense of melody and dramatic storytelling.

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