Music and lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong and Green Day. Book by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer. Directed by Richard Berg. A URP Production. At the Centennial Theatre on Wednesday, November 6. Continues until November 10
URP’s production of American Idiot is a spectacular celebration of punk-rock band Green Day’s music, told through a high-energy, theatrical experience. Soaring vocals and band accompaniment, visually stimulating staging, and rock-concert lighting make this a fun experience. And while the show’s story is flat and the directorial concept is a bit illogical, there’s much to enjoy in this electrifying, nostalgic ride.
American Idiot is basically a stage version of Green Day’s 2004 album of the same name. Created during the waning days of the pop-punk/MTV era, the songs capture the essence of teenage angst in early-2000s suburban America, all of which is brought to life in the musical.
The show’s story centres on three young friends—Johnny, Will, and Tunny—frustrated with their suburban lives and wanting to escape to big-city life. Will ends up having to stay behind with his pregnant girlfriend. Johnny and Tunny continue on their way, but are soon separated when Tunny enlists in the army.
Left on his own, Johnny falls in love with two things: a young woman, and drugs. From there on, we see how each young man deals with his struggles.
The issue with the show’s storytelling is that since there’s little dialogue, there’s only the songs to move the story forward—and that isn’t enough to flesh out the plot and characters. The action moves quickly without us really getting to know these guys. As a result, one can only feel indifferent to plot developments like Tunny getting sent to war, and Will’s conflicts.
But this production sparkles with outstanding performances from its cast of young, emerging performers who brilliantly handle the challenging punk-rock/pop vocal stylings and harmonies. The cast also performs Emily Matchette’s creative choreography with impressive energy, athleticism, and attitude. One powerful visual is when cast members jump one by one off a staircase onto a mattress, and later beckon to a character to jump to his doom.
As Johnny, Colin Sheen delivers the show’s standout performance. A sensational singer, he uses a distinct pop/rock vocal style with enough edge to rock songs like “Jesus of Suburbia”, while also singing “When It’s Time” with warmth and passion. While his character isn’t written to be very likeable, he uses the tender moments in his vocals and movements to connect with the audience and show Johnny’s vulnerability.
It’s also worth noting that the rendition of “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, performed by Sheen, Tanner Ford, and Nick Heffelfinger (the last two play Will and Tunny), all accompanying themselves on guitars, is hauntingly moving.
While the original Broadway production was set during the post 9/11 and Bush administration era, director Richard Berg intended to set this version in the current Trumpian times. But with the cast dressed in leather shorts with chains, flannel plaid, and denim vests, Gina Morel’s costume designs take us back to the early 2000s or even before then. And because the show is set in a world where people write letters home, and there’s no trace of mobile phones or social media, it’s puzzling what era we’re actually seeing.
Perhaps it’s better that the show presents itself as a story from the past—when commentary against war, mainstream media, and commercialism rang loud. American Idiot’s messaging and attitude don't quite transfer into the current Gen Z scene, which focuses on climate-change action, anti-bullying, and inclusion.
With that in mind, URP’s production of American Idiot is an entertaining resurgence of songs from a previous generation. The show not only celebrates the music, but also the visions and dreams that Bush-era youth brought into the world.