Songs for stupid times
Green Day’s music steals the show in American Idiot musical
Sometimes albums become more relevant with age. Take Green Day’s American Idiot, the 2004 punk-rock opera about apathy, disillusionment and social dysfunction in the face of increasingly disturbing political events in America. The 13-year-old album holds up and seems even more relevant given the parallel realities in the Trump era.
Chico State’s School of the Arts brings current issues to its production of the stage musical based on the album, with references to Trump and media overload sprinkled throughout. Helping it all is the fact that the record’s hits—“American Idiot,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Holiday” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends”—don’t sound dated.
I went to the final dress rehearsal on Monday (Oct. 9) at Harlen Adams Theatre, and as a Green Day fan was pleased that the production is heavy on the music, with very little dialogue between songs. However, the story—written by Broadway director Michael Mayer and Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong—is written in extremely broad strokes. I had a hard time discerning what was happening—partly because of mic malfunctions and sound-level issues that likely will get worked out by opening night—but mostly because there wasn’t much in terms of the characters’ motivations written into the story. Here’s the basic narrative:
A bunch of young, leather-clad, mohawk-sporting punks are hanging out in suburbia, framed on the large Harlen Adams stage with an impressively constructed set made up of metal staircases, scaffolding and red brick covered with graffiti. They’re all staring at their smartphones and getting bombarded by media about our commander-in-Cheeto, which riles them up and the music kicks off with album opener “American Idiot” (“Now everybody do the propaganda/And sing along to the age of paranoia”).
Then the protagonist, Johnny (Brandon Burchard), and his friends Will (Eric Gateno) and Tunny (Leif Bramer) make a beer run to the 7-Eleven, and Will’s girlfriend shows up and reveals that she’s pregnant (cue “Dearly Beloved”).
Johnny, Tunny and a bunch of other punks decide to leave suburbia for the city, but Will stays home with his girlfriend and unborn child. Gateno, for his part, delivers the play’s strongest performance, sitting on a couch stage left with his plastic bong and making exaggerated expressions that kept me laughing throughout.
At some point Johnny starts shooting up drugs—heroin, I presume—and meets his dream girl, Whatshername (Kathryn Aarons, who has a knockout singing voice). Then they shoot up together and have sex. It’s all very rock ’n’ roll, as the play’s promo material promises.
Tunny, on the other hand, goes to war, gets shot and hallucinates “The Extraordinary Girl” (Cheyenne Courvoisier) dancing seductively by his hospital bed. Back in suburbia, Will’s relationship with his baby momma falls apart because he’s still on the couch hitting the bong. Meanwhile, Whatshername leaves Johnny. Don’t ask me why.
It all seems bleak for our heroes (cue “Wake Me Up When September Ends”), until it isn’t. I won’t give away how it ends, other than to say that the story arc is vague and not very compelling. But the play works best during the musical numbers, which sounded fantastic thanks to a live band that played the entire album (plus a few songs from Green Day’s follow-up 21st Century Breakdown) pretty much note-for-note. Plus, the songs are custom-built for sing-alongs, and the chorus-style approach made the anthems sound properly massive.
Overall, I was entertained throughout and recognized that it was an ambitious and complex production, and the players pulled it all off admirably.