Review: 'American Idiot' at OhLook Performing Arts Center

Genevieve Croft 

 Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Based on the 2004 Green Day album of the same name, this modern-day “punk” rock opera has similar roots to The Who’s Tommy, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. All began as a concept album, with a conventional plot and complex characters telling a story through song. All have successful stage adaptations or films, and all have become popular in their own right- whether in film, on stage, or as a reference in popular culture We have seen it time and time again…ABBA’s Mamma Mia, Billy Joel’s Movin’ Out...even ELO’s score from the film and stage versions of Xanadu…American Idiot is no different. After all, what is the formula for a successful Broadway musical…a popular band, a best-selling album, and a concept from the album with the potential to take life on stage.

American Idiot is set in Jingletown, USA in the recent past (9/11 didn’t seem that long ago, did it?). Fed up with the state of the union, three friends (Johnny, Tunny, and Will) ponder their “do-nothing go no-where” lives, opting to do something about it. Johnny and Tunny depart for the city with a group of other jaded youths, while Will stays home, tied down with the ultimate responsibility-impending fatherhood with his girlfriend, Heather. American Idiot explores many of the themes associated with modern youth: love, lust, rage, and drugs. The political and social commentary of the story are set against a background of the electrifying and energetic music of Green Day, a band that epitomizes the aforementioned themes and ideals in modern music.

Director Jill Blalock Lord brought together an ensemble cast which worked well together, and collaborated with a crew who clearly took their jobs seriously and knit together scenery, lighting and sound that enhanced the story being told by these characters. This was the first time that I had seen American Idiot, and Lord did a fabulous job of casting, and creating a vision and concept for the stage-one that I had only been able to envision from listening to the album. Every aspect of this production of American Idiot did great justice to the concept that I had woven in my mind-the story of Jesus of Suburbia (Johnny) in the stage adaptation of the rock opera. What a pleasure to see such a fantastic production of this show-especially being the regional premiere. This production was so full of energy that the ninety-minute production flew by, as I waited for each of my favorite Green Day songs to come to life on stage. Set Designer Taylor Dobbs successfully transformed the very intimate proscenium stage into multiple locations. The stage and set was designed in such a way where many locations could be conveyed, without overcrowding the space. Simple use of elevated platforms, and different levels in the staging provided quick, seamless transitions from scene to scene. I especially appreciated the symbolism of the empty stage-it really gave a glimpse into the emptiness of these character’s lives. It seemed that Johnny was seeking to fill a void in his life-whether it was love or drugs, or seeking to “find himself.” The openness of the set, and the platforms really represented the ups and downs, instability and uncertainty of his life. 

Jill Blalock Lord designed lighting, in addition to directing. Lord did a fantastic job plotting lighting that was appropriate to each scene, and lighting effects that set-up the mood of each song. Through the performance, her cuing to enhance each scene was spot on. I especially liked her integration of strobe lighting and many colorful lights for each scene. It was evident that mood of each scene was conveyed nicely through the color choices used on stage. The usage of the strobe light was another touch that kept the energy up throughout the production. The use of the strobe consistently created some nice stage pictures and silhouettes. It is not often that lighting in a production moves me. However, I believe that in this production, the lighting effects used truly created the spectacle and enticed me into the world of the story.

Assisting the lighting and set, Sound Designer Taylor Dobbs carried through with his own detailing, and I especially enjoyed hearing songs such as TLC’s “Waterfalls” prior to the beginning of the production. It certainly reminded me of the early 2000’s, and was a nice touch. Sometimes, it can be difficult to find the right music to set the mood in a musical production. I think that designers might be tempted to play music from the actual production, or songs from the same artist who composed the music and lyrics. Dobbs resisted both of these temptations, and chose some fantastic cuts that brought me back to the days when I was in college. It allowed me to reminisce, and immerse myself into the production. I also enjoyed hearing snippets of news magazine programming reporting on the events post 9/11, and of the War in Iraq. Bill O’Reilly’s voice was incredibly recognizable, and was a nice touch to start out the production.

Jill Blalock Lord and Hannah Blalock Choat worked as a team and designed costumes that were very appropriate to the time period. Each actor had a distinct look, and each costume personified each character. Not only were the lighting, and the music very electrifying, but also, the costumes also assisted in making each character come alive with energy and enthusiasm. The second alternative rock movement was re-emerging during this time. These costumes epitomized how I remember stores like Hot Topic, before it became mainstream. It was eclectic and very punk rock. Costumes were fabulous in this production. 

Chris Clark was incredibly believable in the role of Johnny. Through facial expression, and body language, Clark convincingly portrayed the aspiring musician, seeking to find himself in a new generation of Americans. He never faltered in his delivery, and all interactions with other cast members were believable and spot on. I really connected with his personality-it was very real and was an excellent representation of the youth of America at that time. Clark’s performances of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” were very moving. Mr. Clark is very dynamic and talented- in his acting and in musical abilities. 

Another standout was Drew Brown, in the role of Tunny. Throughout the course of the story, audiences see a complete transformation in his character. He changes from an apathetic youth, to a military man being shipped off to war. Brown’s change in this production displayed a nice duality and dimension to his character. His performance of “Before the Lobotomy” was very expressive. Brown’s performance as Tunny was a nice contrast to role of Johnny. Both were very real, but different representations of American youth at that time.

Emma Lord skillfully played Johnny’s romantic interest, identified as Whatsername. With very few lines of dialogue, Lord gave a fantastic performance relying mainly on facial expressions and body language to tell her part of the story. I believe it can be difficult even for the most esteemed actors to portray a multi-dimensional character, and in most situations, they are given dialogue to assist them. It takes a dedicated actor or actress to convey a complicated character without much dialogue. I thought that Ms. Lord gave the audience a great deal of insight to Johnny’s character, and provided audiences with another facet of his personality. Her portrayal was a touch in a plot that was heavily dominated by male characters.

This production of American Idiot is definitely worth seeing. Not only is this the Regional Premiere of this production, but also the attention to detail evident in all aspects of this production makes for a satisfying experience. From the moment the audiences hear the opening guitar riff of “American Idiot,” the cast comes out full force, and full of energy. Audiences will be engaged and entertained all the way to the end- as the company concludes the performance with “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” –a Green Day fan favorite. Whether you are a diehard fan of Green Day, or are introduced to their music for the first time, you will certainly leave the theatre with a fantastic rock opera experience. Be cautious though with bringing youth- there are several occurrences of language and adult content. You have a short amount of time to see the regional premiere of this production…you’d be an idiot to miss it!


GREEN DAY’S AMERICAN IDIOT

OhLook Performing Arts Center, 1631 W. Northwest Highway, Grapevine, Texas 76051
Plays through July 26.Fridays and Saturday at 7:30 pm, Sunday at 2:30 pm. 

Ticket prices are $15.00 per person. 

For information or to purchase reserved seats visit www.ohlookperform.com, or call 817-421-2825. 

Review: 'American Idiot' at Warner Stage Company

Nancy Sasso Janis

'Green Day's American Idiot' is running at lightening speed at the Warner Theatre's Nancy Studio Theatre through next weekend. The Warner Stage Company is the first community theater in Connecticut to present this punk rock opera that is loud, brash, vulgar, exhausting, uplifting...and loud. The dancing is hard and fast, the vocals are rocking and the band could easily go out on tour. I loved every single earsplitting, rage and love filled minute of the seamless 90 minute show.

The sung through musical is based on Green Day's Grammy Award winning seventh album 'American Idiot,' a rock opera inspired by the work of The Who. Some additional material came from their follow up recording '21st Century Breakdown.' The Green Day music features lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong and the book was written by Mr. Armstrong and Michael Mayer. A super behind the scenes documentary entitled 'Broadway Idiot' follows Mr. Armstrong from a punk rock concert at Madison Square Garden to the opening of his musical 'American Idiot' on Broadway only ten blocks away. Watching it made me want to see this show immediately, but the touring company's stop at the Palace was during a snowstorm and I missed it. This was the show on the Warner's season that I looked forward to the most and I was not disappointed in the least.

The action focuses on three young men searching for meaning in the world after 9/11. The three fight their own personal wars, literally for one and metaphorically for the other two. It reflects the criticism of the shallow, media saturated culture that was the basis of the original album. The huge set designed by Jameson H. Willey features wooden pallets infused with many working   television sets that showed inventive videos designed by co-director Katherine Ray. It was both busy and stark and although it hid the band very effectively, is probably the best use of the Nancy Marine space that I have ever seen. It definitely was the best place to stage this piece and Ms. Ray and Sharon A. Wilcox have directed it with contemporary and sharp eyes.

Meric Martin was the music director and wailed on the guitar while directing the amazing members of the band seated with him and the string quartet seated on the opposite side of the stage. Despite the seating, the music was seamless. Ms. Wilcox's choreography is probably her best work to date and was an aerobic workout for the young dancers. Think doing sit ups and releasing back to the floor all while singing; it was exhausting for me just to watch and I admired the stamina of the ensemble that was displayed on stage.

Many in this talented young cast were new faces for the Warner that came out simply because they loved the show and every one of them poured their blood, plenty of sweat and some tears into their roles.   Christopher Franci (referred to as Jesus of Suburbia) was a strong singer in the role of the protagonist, the couch wallowing Johnny. Scott Murphy played one of his best friends, the beer swigging Will and Stephen Lenczewski rounded out the trio in the role of the soldier Tunny. All three carried the weighty roles and usually moved around their own furniture pieces as well.

Tony Leone was amazing in the role of the scary St. Jimmy, the part that Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong played on and off on Broadway to the delight of his fans. Mr. Leone gave him a run for his money as the drug dealer who is revealed to be a drug-addled figment of Johnny's imagination. The rest of the men of the Idiot nation included Jesse T. Hunter, Rodney K, Rick Mantell, Noel Roberge and Ruben Soto ('Ragtime.')

The always wonderful Katie Brunetto played Will's pregnant girlfriend Heather and her voice rose on her solo in "Dearly Beloved." Ms. Brunetto often joined the ensemble for their dance numbers as well. Lynn D'Ambrosi was outstanding as Whatsername (as her character is called) who interacts with Johnny and Lauren Jacob was just as strong as Extraordinary Girl, the nurse who cares for Tunny. The women of the ensemble included the super dancers Erica Blasko, Michelle Funaro, Morgan Grambo, Jenna Morin, Rachel Newman, Rachel Perlin, Breanna Riollano and Beverly Rodenberg.

Adding to the experience of this piece was the band playing Green Day classics (probably an oxymoron) as patrons found their seats in the sold out house. I immediately noticed that speakers were placed under the bleachers and Mr. Martin confirmed that the subwoofers had been brought in from the mainstage to pump up the sound. The lighting designed by Mr. Willey was perfect and included a crazy 855 cues in the ninety minutes. Chris LaPlante worked his magic on the sound board and Renee C. Purdy and Jessica Camarero designed the punk-inspired costumes. Because the set included no back stage area, the actors changed in the hallways where the props were stored. 

I didn't recognize all of the musical numbers, but every one of them moved the plot along. I enjoyed the execution of all of my Green Day favorites, like "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," "21 Guns," "Wake Me Up When September Ends," and "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life.)" I will admit that I actually saw one usher offer an older patron a set of earplugs before the show, but he declined. Only two ticket holders left after the second number; clearly the show is not for everybody. The audience was decidedly and refreshingly young for a Sunday matinee.

Tickets for the remaining weekend are limited but are available. I was able to secure one the morning of the matinee for a seat far stage right and I would gladly sit there again. This truly is a show not to be missed by anyone who likes Green Day or cutting edge musicals in the style of 'Hair' and 'Rent;' in my opinion 'American Idiot' is the best of the three and I hope that this is just the first of many productions that will run in CT. I will be there for them all. Congratulations to the Warner Stage Company for being on the cutting edge and for this memorable experience that will be one of the favorite shows of the year. 


Caption: The Warner Theatre Presents:Green Day's AMERICAN IDIOT. Photos by Luke Haughwout ©2015