Green Day's American Idiot (shake & stir theatre and QPAC)

Ben Bennett as Johnny and Sarah McLeod as St Jimmy, photographed by David Fell

Where? Playhouse Theatre, QPAC
When? April 13-21, 2018

Brush off your teenage angst, Brisbane – Green Day’s American Idiot has hit the Playhouse, and it’s an adrenaline rush you won’t want to miss if you’re a fan of their music.

Directed by Craig Hott and utilising the full track list from the 2004 album as well as a few hits from 21st Century Breakdown and Nimrod, American Idiot tells a familiar tale – disaffected youth, big dreams that look different up close, and the messy, lonely business of navigating from adolescence to adulthood.

Self-proclaimed ‘Jesus of Suburbia’ Johnny (Ben Bennett), along with his best mates Will (Alex Jeans) and Tunny (Connor Crawford), is determined to leave behind Jingletown, where they grew up, and make it in the city. The three go their separate ways and the musical presents the kaleidoscope of their experiences – Will remains in Jingletown with pregnant girlfriend Heather (Ashleigh Taylor), listlessly sinking into the couch; Tunny tires of the city quickly and finds purpose by enlisting in the military but is wounded in more ways than one; and Johnny makes it to the city, only to be enchanted by a mysterious woman and hard drugs, struggling with his maniacal alter ego, St Jimmy (a role shared between The Superjesus’ Sarah McCleod, Grinspoon’s Phil Jamieson, and Australian rocker Adalita). All return home in the end, each changed and injured in their own ways, but all pretending that their respective stories were full of victory and adventure.

Photographed by Dylan Evans.

The musical opens with a bang, the title track blasting through the theatre and setting the scene of young people disenchanted with their government, their media, and their authority figures. There was hardly any dialogue at all, which is a credit to the production team – the plot flowed reasonably smoothly given that it was composed from an existing set of songs, and the transitions between scenes and songs were crisp. Phoebe Panaretos’ rendition of ‘Letterbomb’ was arguably better than the original, the power of her voice unrivalled onstage, and ‘21 Guns’ employed chilling harmonies as it presented a bleak cross-section of lives and images. ‘Give Me Novacaine’ was the most effective use of parallels between the three stories, and ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ was an emotional acoustic trio from the three main characters.

Sarah McCleod had an electric stage presence, crazy eyes, and killer boots, and Ben Bennett’s voice was strong and emotive despite a poorly adjusted microphone for the first few songs. The onstage band—Music Director Glenn Moorhouse and Lee Mallinson on guitar, Sam Blackburn on bass, Bennet Livingston and Pete Skelton on drums, and Heidi Maguire on keys—was mostly visible as movement behind a rollerdoor or frosted pane, although they occasionally took centre stage. The ensemble all gave exceptional performances, although the music occasionally overpowered the vocals of even the strongest singers.

Sarah McLeod was a brilliant St Jimmy. Photographed by Dylan Evans.

Choreography by Brent Street owner and director Lucas Newland was appropriately contemporary and, in many cases, highly physical – movements jerked and hit hard on the beat, and head banging was incorporated. The choreography for ‘Extraordinary Girl’ stood out from this, not only because of the excellent aerial work but the softer, more balletic movements performed by Kaylah Attard.

The industrial warehouse-esque set, designed by Josh McIntosh, remained the same throughout and characters moved across platforms, up and down stairways and ladders, and through trapdoors and roller doors. Moveable set pieces—Will’s couch, Johnny’s bed, a concertina cage—were used to change the scene, and projected videos designed by Craig Wilkinson allowed for easy and effective movement between locations. Screens fixed all over the set gave the musical a Big Brother feel, similar to shake and stir’s recent production of 1984, and simulated the media saturation of the modern world as well as projecting close-ups of faces from different perspectives. Lighting design by Matthew Marshall, costumes by Melanie Knight, and sound design by Julian Spink completed the immersion, from neon skulls and strobes in the city nightclubs to the grimy light of the local 7-11.

Phoebe Panaretos as Whatsername, photographed by Dylan Evans

The creators have challenged the tropes of musical theatre, one of the key ways being that there is no moral lesson attached (except, perhaps, that rebellion is futile). It was refreshing to have no death despite the characters’ endlessly reckless behaviour – no one was punished for the sin of being a teenager.

The program claims that the musical has been updated to reflect the “here and now” of a post-Trump era, and the projected images and animations certainly reflected that, but there were no other notable changes in how it is dealt with the themes of government and authority, as opposed to the post-9/11 Bush era in which the album was produced.

The narrative suffers from a lack of female voices despite the killer singing voices that grace the stage, although there is a lot to love about the fact that gender wasn’t a stipulation in the casting of St Jimmy. Whatsername exists primarily as the sex for Johnny’s ‘sex, drugs, and rock and roll’; Heather and their child are a ball and chain for Will; and Extraordinary Girl is Tunny’s reason to recover. None of the women have a story separate from the desires of the men, despite the audience’s emotional investment in Heather and her baby, and Whatsername’s wellbeing after Johnny mistreats her.

Photographed by Dylan Evans

In the transition from “punk rock opera” concept album to Broadway musical, something integral has been lost – the songs are performed with incredible skill and ferocity, but the overarching story that the musical tells is a bleak one, with the punk rock fury replaced by the harsh reality of a failed revolution, and no hope of revival. The musical feels like the first act of something bigger – where are the burning buildings, the rallying for change, the harnessing of anger for disruption? The music is all there, but the underlying message is not. Despite this, American Idiot is a brilliant show in and of itself, and I would see it again without hesitation.  

Ben Bennett as Johnny, photographed by Dylan Evans

As expected, the musical closed with ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)’ to a standing ovation from the matinee audience. It was a wonderfully diverse crowd – theatre-goers in dinner jackets and heels alongside Green Day fans in band T-shirts and eyeliner. American Idiot was the soundtrack to many teenage lives, within America and without, and tapped into the timeless theme and endless market of teenage frustration and fury. Fans of the album and fans of high-energy musicals will be equally enamoured with this fast-paced and emotionally charged production that recognises something in all of us.

Green Day’s American Idiot is playing at QPAC for a strictly limited season – find more information and buy tickets here.