SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a poignant philosophy buried just beneath the surface of American Idiot. It doesn’t take long for this high-energy musical, backed by Green Day’s punk rock anthem, to make that point known: we’re all a little screwed up—and that’s OK.
The University of Utah’s Department of Theatre takes this theme and runs with it in their production of American Idiot. It’s head-banging, foot-stomping entertainment—and not just for the audience. The cast’s energy is infectious and palpable, in part due to Denny Berry’s inspiring direction. If you’ve been out of the theater for a long time—like me—this production will make you miss it.
Familiarity with Green Day makes American Idiot easier to follow, but it’s just as enjoyable if you come in not knowing any of their music. Billie Joe Armstrong wrote the lyrics and he wrote the book with Michael Mayer. (Although, if you’ve listened to any alternative rock—or even top 40—radio station in the last decade, chances are you’ve heard at least one Green Day song. My money’s on “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”)
It takes a few Green Day songs for the story to get going, but once it does, it runs full steam, breaking only a couple of times until it reaches the end. In between, friends Johnny (Austin John Smith), Will (John Yerke), and Tunny (Dominic Zappala), living in Suburbia, long to leave their town behind. It’s not so easy for Will, whose girlfriend Heather (Liz Terry) is pregnant. But Johnny and Tunny make it to the city before Tunny decides to enlist in the military. That leaves Johnny torn between his drug-enabling alter ego St. Jimmy (Megan Shenefelt) and a girl he seems to love but can never remember her name (Madi Cooper).
Smith really takes on Johnny’s anti-hero persona. Johnny’s not a typical musical lead, and neither is Smith. That’s what makes this character work. Likewise, casting a woman in the St. Jimmy role—one typically played by men, including Armstrong in the final Broadway cast—was absolutely perfect. Shenefelt is spectacular and brings a unique quality to the part, especially during her introductory song “St. Jimmy.” And Yerke, who spends most of his time on a couch in front of a TV, has a voice that sails throughout the auditorium.
With so many great songs, it’s difficult to pick a favorite number. Any time Smith, Yerke, and Zappala sing together, it’s memorable; their voices meld beautifully. In particular, Smith soars when singing solo or with the entire ensemble, but he does seem to lack confidence when playing the guitar during songs such as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” focusing more on his fingers than his voice. Once the band kicks in, Smith’s voice picks up again, too. Zappala is also guilty of this during “Wake Me Up When September Ends.”
Berry’s use of minimal set pieces allows enough space for the cast to dance. And boy do they. Almost every song has a dancing chorus. At first it seems cramped with so many people on stage at once. But they get into a good rhythm making use of the space, particularly the moving staircases (and especially during “Holiday”). The choreography during “American Idiot” and the “Jesus of Suburbia” medley was overwhelming, so it’s difficult to know where to focus your attention.
It was during these two songs when I noticed the conductor Alex Marshall on stage left, pulling triple duty playing the piano and guitar in addition to conducting. He almost steals the show. But, not to leave anyone out, the entire band performs Green Day’s songs well and without drowning out the actors singing on stage.
The use of mounted television screens—suspended above and toward the rear of the stage—are used well, but unless you’re further up in the audience, like I was, chances are you won’t notice them. What you will observe is the dramatic lighting design by Cole Adams. It fits perfectly with the tone of the musical without becoming a distraction
If you’ve heard any Green Day song before, you’ll probably guess there’s quite a bit of adult language in this musical. If it were a movie, it’d probably be rated R. Still, that doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s a musical for a certain generation—which includes myself. American Idiot (the album) came out as I was starting my senior year of high school. As an angsty teenager, it helped define my transition from high school to college.
Just listening to a few of the popular songs from the American Idiot album, you may not realize how well they all fit together as a rock opera—which was Armstrong’s intent. Seeing it on stage though, you’ll never be able to listen to it the same way again.
And right now, it’s all I want to listen to.