Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
January 12, 2018
Pop-punk band Green Day’s smash-hit American Idiot is now almost 14 years old but, for those of a certain age, the Bush-era protest album is already heavy with nostalgia. Released in 2004, three years after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York (and the same year that Facebook launched) the concept album, which featured successful singles such as American Idiot and Jesus of Suburbia, took aim at corporate America and the right-wing media against the backdrop of the George Bush administration’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2009 it became a musical (premiering in Califorina and opening on Broadway in 2010), with a book by the band’s frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, fleshed out with songs from Green Day’s next album 21st Century Breakdown.
Linden Furnell and ensemble in Green Day’s American Idiot. Photos © Ken Leanfore
In this Australian production directed by Craig Ilott, which premiered at QPAC last year, the stage is awash with messaging – televisions spew slogans, from “FUCK TRUMP” to Pro-Life exhortations, and billboards and graffiti are rife (there’s even a nod to the recently minted “stable genius” tweet). Because the story – and the rage and disaffection – are painted with such broad, allegorical strokes (and because one of the wars begun under Bush continues to this day) the update to Trump’s America works well.
It’s music videos more than music theatre that this production of Green Day’s American Idiot draws on, with frenzied dance numbers and hyperactive video projections (designed by Craig Wilkinson) keeping the show driving forward through Green Day’s hit songs, which are linked together with a sketchily drawn plot. The story focuses on three young men from a dead-end suburban town (Jingletown, USA, wrought in rusting iron fire escapes, roller doors and graffiti-sprayed shop fronts in Josh McIntosh’s set design), raging with a directionless fury against their time and place in the world in the opening number American Idiot.
Alex Jeans, Linden Furnell and Connor Crawford in Green Day’s American Idiot
Johnny (Linden Furnell), who has dubbed himself Jesus of Suburbia, leaves small town for big city with nebulous plans to fight the establishment, but instead falls in love and quickly spirals into a world of drugs. Tunny (Connor Crawford) comes along for the ride but is soon seduced by the US Army (in a television advertisement fantasy sequence, Favourite Son) and signs up. Their friend Will (Alex Jeans) is left behind when he discovers his girlfriend is pregnant. He drinks beer on the couch for most of the show – his isn’t so much a character arc as a flat line. The story, such as it is, is told through the songs and brief, often ironic, ‘letters’ home from Johnny, who Furnell gives a self-deprecating lilt reminiscent of High Fidelity’s Rob.
Phoebe Panaretos is Whatsername in Green Day’s American Idiot.
If the male characters are thinly sketched, the barely-named female characters are even more so. Ashleigh Taylor is Heather, whose story of discovering her pregnancy and eventually leaving her dead-weight boyfriend comes second to Will’s angst-ridden couch-drinking, Phoebe Panaretos is Whatsername, Johnny’s flame in the city, and Kaylah Attard is the Extraordinary Girl, a nurse Tunny falls in love with after being wounded. With characters so two-dimensional, there is little – beyond the power of the songs themselves – to invest in emotionally.
It’s the music rather than the story that makes this show work. The six-piece band, under music director Glen Moorhouse, delivers Green Day’s music (in crisp arrangements by Tom Kitt) with tight energy and the singing is generally excellent. Furnell gives a clear-voiced account of Johnny, both in the angrier rock songs and dialled back acoustic numbers, while Taylor’s voice pings beautifully as Heather. Panaretos is a stand-out, however, delivering a powerful, throaty Letterbomb against a backdrop of quivering graffiti. Her throwing over of the drug-addled Johnny gets a cheer in one of the few genuinely heartfelt moments of the show.
Phil Jamieson as St Jimmy in Green Day’s American Idiot
Grinspoon’s Phil Jamieson brings a raw energy to St Jimmy (Johnny’s slick, drug-dealing friend/alter-ego). The role has often been cast as a cameo for rock musicians – Billie Joe Armstrong has sung the role on a number of occasions in the USA and The Living End’s Chris Cheney performed in the Australian premiere. Magic Dirt’s Adalita and The Superjesus’ Sarah McLeod will appear in the role later in this tour.
While Green Day’s American Idiot may not be satisfying as a musical theatre experience, it’s fast-paced and entertaining. The choreography (Lucas Newland) has a frenzied, desperate energy – the ensemble never fails to deliver – and the combined result of costumes (Melaine Knight), lighting (Matthew Marshall) and Wilkinson’s videos creates a spectacular visual presentation that feeds off the music’s rage and vitality. A must-see for Green Day fans but a fun night out for everyone else.
Green Day’s American Idiot plays at the Sydney Opera House until January 14, before touring to Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane and Darwin.