When I first listened to Green Day’s 2004 Album, “American Idiot”, I could hear the story they were telling. It wasn’t just a grouping of songs, the songs had a progression and told us about a young man’s escape from suburbia to a lonely life in the city and his final return home. The album broke boundaries, offered us one of our first protest songs against the Iraq War (“Holiday”) and spoke to our hearts. When it was announced that a rock opera had been created based on the album, I said: “of course!” I was delighted when Billie Joe Armstrong, front man and songwriter for Green Day got involved, and was even more delighted when it won Tony awards. And then it went on tour… I would finally get to see it!
The touring production of “American Idiot” played at Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City, December 3-5. The show is about three friends, Johnny (played by Jared Nepute), Tunny (played by Dan Tracy) and Will (played by Casey O’Farrell), growing up in a suburb called Jingletown. Their days are spent staring the television and their nights are spent in a 7-11 parking lot with all of the other bored youth, at least until Johnny, the “Jesus of Suburbia”, gets the idea to get out of suburbia and head to the city. He procures bus tickets for the three friends and their adventure begins. Well… what really happens is more like reality. Will is left behind with a pregnant girlfriend, Tunny gets lethargic then joins the military, and Johnny is left lost and alone in the city. The story follows the three as they struggle to grow up.
From first look, the set is amazing in its simplicity and versatility. The back wall is covered with television monitors that help convey the story. The rest are simple set pieces, such as Will’s sofa, Johnny’s bed and Tunny’s chair. Panels rise and fall to create doors and windows, and it has an overall warehouse/back-alley feel to it. Finally there’s the scaffolding and staircase, all metal, that move around the set and create various scenes, depending on where they’re placed.
The songs follow the same progression from the original album, with some songs inserted from Green Day’s 2008 album “21st Century Breakdown”, a rare b-side, “Favorite Son”, and one original song, “When it’s Time”. There’s very little dialogue, mostly Johnny reciting from either his diary or his letters to Will, which is appropriate for a Rock Opera. These dialogue inserts are there to progress the story in a way that the songs cannot.
One major complaint I have is that many of the lyrics were lost under the driving music of the live band and the punk rock speed of the music. Lyrics, particularly in “Jesus of Suburbia”, that are needed to explain the characters and the story. Visually, the cast was able to keep us engaged and we were able to follow the progression, but I had hoped the lyrics would sound clearer for an audience that hadn’t studied the liner notes, I had to.
Jared Nepute was great in his performance as Johnny, though at the top he seemed out of character, smiling and almost winking at the audience, saying: “hey, I’m singing Green Day songs.” I don’t know if this was a character choice, but it didn’t seem to quite fit his desperation to escape suburbia.
The role of St. Jimmy (played by Daniel C. Jackson), was an interesting idea to me. On the original album, St. Jimmy is who the “character” becomes after he realizes that he can no longer be the “Jesus of Suburbia”. In the musical, he at first seems like a second character, but as the play progressed, I realized he was more of a Tyler Duerden (Fight Club), existing only in Johnny’s mind, and was a persona he created to cope with his new life in the city.
Dan Tracy and Casey O’Farrell were both amazing in their portrayals of Tunny and Will. I wished Will hadn’t been relegated to a permanent position stage left. Despite his being left behind, I thought his story was equally compelling and would have liked to seem him get more time in the center.
The performances of Olivia Puckett (Whatsername) and Mariah MacFarlane (Heather) were simply beautiful. Olivia’s face conveyed so much of her emotion in dealing with Johnny’s drug abuse and paranoia. I believed every moment. Mariah was a strong presence, even when she was stuck in Will’s corner. I could feel her frustration at having “too much too soon” in her life and not having the support she needed from Will.
I took my 14 year old son with me and during “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, when the ensemble is dressed more “adult” staring out into space with a look of overwhelming shock on their faces, I whispered to him: “Yep. That’s what that’s like.” He asked me what I meant by that after the show, and I explained, “that’s the look we all get when we realize it’s time to grow up and understand just exactly what that means.”
The sad part of all this is that we only get this production for three days and those days are gone. If it circles back, you need to do whatever you can to get tickets. And if you do, I should warn you, there’s an encore. After the curtain call, the curtain drops, but it will rise again and you get a nice treat from the cast, so keep your seats.