★★★★☆ - Delicious
As we mark the 18th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks that shocked and altered the collective American consciousness, Majestic Repertory Theatre gives a gritty, high-energy presentation of Green Day's 2009 punk-rock opera "American Idiot." Frontman and lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong, with book co- writer Michael May, expanded upon the band's 2004 concept album of the same name and their 2009 album "21st Century Breakdown" to create the musical, which features alienated youth who flee mind-numbing suburbia hoping to find individuality and excitement in the big city. It explores post 9/11 youthful anger and indignation at George W. Bush and the Iraq War, and rails against the media manipulation of the public that blurs reality with sensationalism.
History always repeats itself, so at the top of the show Director Troy Heard has actors take their places while walking slowly onstage with their eyes glued to their cellphones. In true Heard fashion the production is its own unique world, and is an immersive experience that starts before the show even begins. Theatrical haze filtered through the eerie pink and green lighting of Marcus Randolph evokes a smoky club or an early morning mist, and envelops the playing space with its monochrome, cityscape set, designed by You Killed Me First, of rolling scaffolding and walls plastered with retro concert posters and flyers, perhaps along the "Boulevard of Broken Dreams."
Continuing the punk aesthetic is the thoughtful, authentic costume design of Hannah Prochaska Slayton who dresses the city kids in black leather, fishnet, and red tartan, while suburban kids are more dressed down in t-shirts and flannels. The show is a near non-stop whirlwind of music and movement which choreographer Jenna Szoke deftly shapes with freestyle, punk, and hip-hop styles. One memorable bit set to the song "Holiday" features the suburban kids leaving Jingletown for the big city on a bumpy bus, which they simulate for comic effect through synchronized physical movement. And Taley Tran created the complicated sound design.
During last Friday night's performance there were problems with the sound system so that vocalists often were difficult to hear, except during ballads played on acoustic guitars. It was disappointing that the actors weren't able to fully display their singing talents, but oddly it wasn't a deal-breaker for the show as a whole. Performances were still passionate and pointed, and it actually had the effect of elevating the music over the lyrics, which aren't incredibly deep to begin with. It was like watching a rock concert, since there were fans in the audience who knew the songs by heart and felt free to belt them out right along with the performers, insensitively even during solos. The eight-piece band, led by musical director Andrew Tyler with arrangements by Tom Kitt, is phenomenal. In character and costume the musicians rock just as hard as the actors, and cello player Kayla Quijano is a standout.
This is a difficult show for performers, who barely come up for air. The excellent ensemble is a realistic reflection of kids you might actually see hanging in clubs or on city streets. The narrative is pretty thin, but the principle actors find depth for their characters. As the ambitious anti-hero Johnny, Mike Vargovich strikes the right balance between defiance and introspection and has some nice acoustic moments on his coming-of-age journey. He finds love with a girl he calls Whatshername, played by Arianna Mercy, but also finds himself with a heroin addiction which he struggles to kick. When he loses Whatsername and fights through physical withdrawals, he holds his head and screams silently, making his pain and anguish palpable.
Will, portrayed by RJ Viray, and Tunny, played by Blaise Esperancilla, are Johnny's friends and bandmates who share his disillusionment. Will stays in the suburbs with his pregnant girlfriend Heather, portrayed by McKenna Roundy, while Tunny heads to the city with Johnny, joins the army and finds love with the Extraordinary Girl, played by Jenelle Catherina. Both guys are brooders, which Viray especially pulls off by giving a feeling of numbness, while Esperancilla conveys the psychological and physical horrors of war and his resulting injuries. The women are all much stronger than their men, with Mercy giving a tough on the outside, sensitive on the inside feeling, while Roundy gives a girl-next-door type vibe, and Catherina has an appealing exotic quality.
Last but not least is the enigmatic Steffan Scrogan as Johnny's alter ego St. Jimmy, who is the evil shadow that walks beside him, whispering in his ear to do smack. Scrogan embodies the apparition-like character, and looks like he might be the love-child of David Bowie and Sid Vicious with his Dayglo mohawk, spiked leather, safety pins, and white platform Docs. He's like a flamboyant reptile who has slithered out of the sewer in search of souls to steal, and he's fascinating to watch.
Majestic Rep's "American Idiot" comes at the perfect time to remind us that there will always be self-absorbed, angry youth and politics that piss them off.
"American Idiot" runs through September 29th, 2019.