Review: Immersive, Smaller-Scale "AMERICAN IDIOT" Rocks La Mirada Theatre
Michael L. Quintos
- OnStage Los Angeles Critic
LA MIRADA CA - For most of my life, being a dedicated fan of musical theater, I have, on a few rare occasions, found myself having to sit through shows that don't completely wow me the first time. But in my mind, I'd like to believe that I am a firm practitioner in giving most shows that didn't impress me the first time, an automatic second chance viewing, especially when a specific show has plenty of great attributes that, if presented with a newer, refreshed perspective, are able to reverse my first impression.
With that being said—and to be completely honest—my first exposure to the mostly sung-through, modern rock musical "AMERICAN IDIOT" (during its initial national tour stops in Southern California) was, at best, like seeing a really cool rock concert performed by some incredibly talented musical theater actors, surrounded by some top-notch high-tech visuals.
To quote my earlier review of the tour: "Well, we know we're watching something awesome... but WTF is actually happening?"
This is, naturally, a surprise to me considering the pedigree of the musical. Not only is this punk-rock jukebox musical rooted in groundbreaking, Grammy Award-winning music—it incorporates all of the songs from the Green Day's similarly-titled 2004 rock opera concept album, as well as several songs from their 2009 album 21st Century Breakdown—the show also features a book co-authored by Green Day's frontman and lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong and Tony Award-winning director Michael Mayer.
While I certainly loved seeing Green Day's terrific music come to life in explosive musical performances, and the original production's overall visual artistry, AMERICAN IDIOT also demanded quite a bit more of its audience in terms of its jumbled narrative. In its original form, the musical was a bit overwhelming and chaotic, and begged to be appreciated for its "big picture" metaphorical themes and generalized angsty-ness of disaffected youths lost in a sea of blah blah blah (everything from loud media, pop culture images, apathy, boredom, sex, drugs, adult responsibilities, etc.). I personally didn't feel much empathy for or investment in the characters as I was hoping to be, even though the touring cast performed their given material like genuine rock star vocalists.
My original reaction to AMERICAN IDIOT, was, to put it simply, hovered somewhere just slightly above the middle.
Well, of course, that all changed for the better once I experienced the truly remarkable, brand-new, more intimately "immersive" production now causing a stir at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through May 15, 2016. Part of the theater's creatively innovative OnStage Series—where large musicals are scaled down into the smaller footprint of the La Mirada's main stage itself where the audience also sits—this revitalized and, dare I say, more compelling AMERICAN IDIOT is a brilliantly-staged re-working of the musical that feels much more alive, more relatable, and, most importantly, more sensical.
THIS new, more intimate production, I must say, successfully converted me into an AMERICAN IDIOT fan. And, man, it is absolutely first-rate.
The basic structure of the musical's storyline, of course, remains the same even in this newly revitalized production.
Infuriated with the emptiness and disillusionment of suburban life in "Jingletown, USA," the story's three close buddies—Will (Ian Brininstool), Tunny (Patrick Reilly), and their de-facto leader Johnny (the riveting Sean Garner)—all resolve to escape their go-nowhere current lives for much more exciting ones in the big city. Johnny, on his end, somehow "procures" the funds to pay for bus tickets—of the three, he really wants to get the hell outta town.
But before all three leave together, Will is sidelined by some shocking news: his girlfriend Heather (Ellie Wyman) is pregnant. Wracked with guilt over his part of the responsibility, Will forgoes the trip and decides to stay behind, while Tunny and Johnny reaffirm their escape.
Naturally, life for these disillusioned suburban youths in the urban jungle isn't so awesome as they thought it would be. For his part, Tunny falls into a deep depression, choosing to oversleep his blues away. Later though, he is awoken by a flashy informercial that promises fulfillment and higher purpose, which convinces him to spontaneously enlist in the army. Alas, that environment, too, has its own set of challenges—one that Tunny, unfortunately, faces head-on and is severely injured in the process.
Back in the big city and now all on his own, Johnny—who chronicles his aimless, crazy life in the "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" via a journal—becomes even more delusional and self-destructive, eventually conjuring up an imaginary, uninhibited alter-ego/urban guru named "St. Jimmy" (A.J. Mendoza), a do-anything, say anything wild figure who entices Johnny into the even more dangerous new world of unlimited sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Along the way, Johnny also becomes fascinated by an exciting new stranger he simply refers to as "Whatsername" (the intriguing Jordan Kai Burnett). Is he genuinely in love with her or is she merely just a part of this downward spiral?
Meanwhile, back at the boys' hometown, Will too is trapped in his own downward spiral, choosing to drown himself in drugs and alcohol as well, as he tries to make sense of the life he chose. Though he has chosen to stay, his behavior is nonetheless driving Heather away, further distancing himself from his new child.
Thoughtfully directed by Brian Kite, this "immersive" AMERICAN IDIOT feels like an entirely new show in a very, very good way. Not only does it now have a more intriguing-to-follow split narrative, it is also so much more in-your-face... literally and metaphorically.
Using the OnStage Series' setup of placing the show, the actors, the band, and the audience all together in the same shared space, the volatile ups-and-downs of these disenchanted characters are much more vibrant and heartfelt, in all its fully-realized, living, breathing glory. Even better? That volatility—and the vulnerability attached to it—has focus, direction, and a story-forwarding momentum.
Throughout the show, the exceptionally talented young cast members emerge from all sides like fired bullets from a gun, performing the musical with pulsating gusto just inches away from the audience. This juxtaposition (which, arguably, could be replicated in a 99-seat scenario, too) allows the raw emotions of the material to reach you in a deeper level that larger productions just can't do.... and, I have to say, it really, really works for this.
Before this production, the characters in AMERICAN IDIOT—as they were originally presented—felt detached and are on another plane of existence, allowing the audience to feel much less invested in them or their respective fates. There is an otherworldly disconnect between us and them that sort of forced us, as an audience, to be at odds with the characters instead of rooting for them. Admittedly, they became a little frustrating. Several times during the course of the national tour production, I almost switched to full-on "old-man" mode and thought that these characters should all just stop whining, face some responsibility, and shut the eff up with all this wah-wah, woe-is-me, first-world-problems BS.
However, here in La Mirada's high-energy, highly-emotional new "intimate" production, the same characters—with all the same angst, problems, and complaints about their world as portrayed in the original Broadway/touring production—all now surprisingly earn our sympathy much more viscerally than before. In a pleasant reversal, I really wanted to know what happens to these characters and hoped the best lies ahead for them.
That is truly the miracle of this brand new production: Director Kite keenly amps up the angst and disillusionment already present in Green Day's music, while at the same time presenting a tidier, more absorbing narrative with reinvigorated gravitas—simply by allowing the audience to be in the thick of it and staging each scene with a logical, more urgent sense of purpose. Our close proximity to this magnificent young cast certainly enhances the overall experience, dropping us into their sometimes painful, sometimes euphoric, and mostly disheartening world in a way the original production just could not showcase.
Additionally, Kite also stages AMERICAN IDIOT as if it had the similar tools (and, perhaps, the budget) of a bigger, full-scale proscenium musical. Despite its more "intimate" surroundings, La Mirada's new production is still a high-octane, full-blown rock musical... only now with an immediacy and tenacity that fits the show's moods and motifs.
The entire show is staged almost in the round, with all of the important events happening on a slightly raised center stage anchored upstage by a huge, eye-popping wall of LED multi-media screens that fittingly grabs for attention when we're not already mesmerized by the superb singing and acting being delivered by the cast.
Audience members flank a left, right, and center bank of seats, allowing for far fewer audience members to experience the show than a "normal" La Mirada production at any given time. Meanwhile, the outstanding house band perched on a raised scaffolding platform above the center seating block and led by musical director David O, envelops the theater with stadium-caliber rock sounds that are expertly mixed well with the ensemble's bombastic singing by Josh Bessom.
From a creative and technical standpoint, this AMERICAN IDIOT is exceedingly blessed. The show features some of choreographer Dana Solimando's best, most mesmerizing work to date (with an assist from Gretchen Dawson)—all of which contribute immensely to the musical's dynamic new overall staging. Her blending of rock, pop, and modern-lyrical styles in the choreography for this production elevates every ensemble number tenfold. Thomas G. Marquez's costume designs are quite remarkable, particularly his slant on era appropriate, early-millennial punk/alternative wear. Rich Rose's mostly asphalt-gray urban scenic designs serve as a useful backdrop for Steven Young's striking lighting design and Jonathan Infante's alluringly cutting-edge video and projection designs that are some of the most well-timed, stirringly-integrated pieces of computer animation and video sequences I've seen in a modern musical. Infante's work here alone are stunning works of art.
And yes, a large part in getting all this angst expressed to an audience so very, very close by is this production's truly exemplary ensemble cast, with not a single weak link in the bunch. These young actors—from the first note to the last bow—all work exceptionally well together and sing and dance with such palpable ferocity that you can't help but be swept up in their vibrant performances.
Front and center of the sung-through musical are the show's three very compelling lead actors who are each well-cast to perfectly essay their respective characters—all of whom are on the brink of adulthood and take on different paths to alleviate their frustrated feelings.
As the enraged but wounded Johnny, Garner is the show's engrossing anti-hero, bringing punk-rock vocals and an underlying soft-side to his vivid portrayal. He is the show's commanding center and he accomplishes the task handily. Equally riveting is Reilly as the sensitive Tunny. His acting work here is really excellent, highlighted by the vulnerable tone in his singing voice that matches his character's heartbreaking journey. His many solos, including the one-two punch of "Before the Lobotomy" and the haunting gurney-dance in "Extraordinary Girl" (with beautiful vocals from Ashley Loren), make for a really outstanding presence. Brininstool's quiet, bubbling rage is also great to see in his portrayal of Will, the young man who reluctantly takes on fatherhood. Vocal wise, the guy is a surprise belter, too.
And when all three boys take their turn singing solos in a song, it sounds just wonderful. Their "Wake Me Up When September Ends" is just incredible to hear live, filled with palpable angst and heartache.
Also worth noting: Burnett's "Whatsername," convincingly sexy and mysterious with belt-tastic vocals to match; scary-good hard-rocking Mendoza as St. Jimmy whose vocal gymnastics are as high as his coif; and Wyman's Heather, appropriately young-ish, with a decidedly forced-adult new responsibility. But, really, the entire ensemble, it should be said, is one palpably enthusiastic, electrically connected set of actors that truly give their all in every bit of this production—and it definitely shows (well, they really can't hide their talents in such an immersive staging). Ferociously performed by this young, excessively talented, and insanely photogenic cast, this is the AMERICAN IDIOT that audiences will and should seek out.
(On a side note... during several points of the opening weekend show I saw, I found myself in a sort of "splash zone" in my front row seat. The cast's singing performances were so intensely expressed that I got LOTS of "spit-sprays" from cast members—an acceptable, no big deal side-effect of a so-called "immersive" production, I suppose. Well, at least the, um, moisture came from super talented people).
Overall, La Mirada's more intimate OnStage production of AMERICAN IDIOT is just impressive and wholly entertaining throughout. In this well-paced but still intermission-less, more absorbing production, the musical truly takes on new life and proves, once again, that this theater company's "immersive" OnStage experiments deserve the accolades it continues to receive not only from us critics but audiences as well.
To put my perspective of this production in another, more current way... For me this new production of AMERICAN IDIOT is like discovering this groundbreaking record's "visual album"—sort of like the kind of art-meets-fierceness companion visuals that Pop queen Beyoncé has single-handedly redefined with her last two incredible, chart-topping releases. This production, for me, provided just that... a vivid visual addendum to Green Day's aural musical masterpiece. In essence, Kite and company created more searing, hypnotically poetic visuals to accompany the already enjoyable music.
THIS is what AMERICAN IDIOT, the stage musical really, truly needed to be—and, now, I can't ever imagine seeing this show in any other way.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' OnStage Series production of Green Day's AMERICAN IDIOT by Jason Niedle.
The OnStage Series presentation of Green Day's AMERICAN IDIOT continues at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through Sunday, May 15, 2016, located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310