Since its release, first as an album and then a musical, Green Day’s Tony- and Grammy-winning American Idiot—a tale of political and adolescent alienation—has become a part of the contemporary canon. City Lights Theater’s new adaptation adeptly packs the sprawling, Broadway-sized rock opera into an intimate black-box theater, without losing any of its explosive energy.
The set is spare and matter-of-fact. Besides two dirty chairs, the stage is clear. A large false wall covers the entire backstage. On that wall are 13 screens, which stand as a metaphor for the impatience of the play’s three lead characters, Johnny, Tunny and Will—who flick through channel after channel, wallowing in suburban monotony.
Quickly, they are swept up in a musical narrative that informs the rest of the plot, as it follows the very different paths each character takes in response to their situation. Johnny experiences love, loss and then extreme addiction. Tunny joins the military and is badly injured in combat. Will remains in suburbia, only to get his teenage girlfriend pregnant; she leaves him upon the baby’s birth.
All of this is approached with a certain haphazard fervor that works in the show’s favor. Costumes change quickly between that of a teenage malcontent, military uniforms, patriotic dresses, and underwear. The set is just as dynamic: it delightfully pops out into mobile staircases, projects images of suburbia onto the walls, and even spits forth a makeshift bus for one musical number.
Johnny, played by Joey Pisacane, is animated, almost spastic, but has the charisma and vocal dominance of a lead singer. His rebellious alter ego, St. Jimmy (played by Sean Okuniewicz) is an interesting counterpart, bringing jittery but soaring vocals and a devilish pomp to match. Tunny, played by Andrew Erwin, who is later confined to a wheelchair, has a clear but complicated voice. Still, it serves as a tender complement to the more brash nature of the lead Johnny. Will, played by Tarif Pappu has the most delicate and beautiful voice of the male leads, and serves as a quiet but effective counterpoint to the vocal punk attitudes. Heather, Will’s girlfriend (played by Melissa Baxter) has a smooth but raw emotive voice and is arguably the most consistent female singer in the show.
The ensemble, a creature all its own, is crucial in the delivery of every performance. Combining nuance and an adolescent fervor, at moments it parades about the stage, dominating the narrative, before falling back into a more subtle chorus. The eclectic production includes multi-part harmonies, duo performances and mid-song vocal trade-offs.
With a full live band and multiple actors performing songs on guitar, the production is tight, wild, and most impressively, spontaneous—such that several times the show’s improvisation caught the audience off guard when it broke unexpectedly into apparent applause breaks. Drum beats go on extra-long, performers hold notes for different effects. There is even inter-splicing of songs to great success.
Dialogue is less important in this story, which is packed to the brim with subversive, sneering quotations. And while everyone is in on the joke, the seriousness of the show’s themes—suicide, depression, war, and addiction—are not glossed over. They are forced in the audience’s face, not in a pedantic way, but in a manner that demonstrates an understanding of the angry, flailing emotions that often drive adolescent behavior.
Head-strapped microphones seemed to be the only weakness in the performance I saw. However, though the production was sometimes interrupted by strange cut-outs and distortion, the performers worked through the technical difficulties with aplomb.
The show is an artifice, but that illusion of belief or disbelief is shared equally between the performers, the musicians and the audience, and paradoxically makes everything feel more authentic.
As much as it’s a crass, hurried affair—it was written by Green Day, after all—City Lights’ adaptation of American Idiot is equally a succinct explosion of irreverent teenage angst.
In its last show of the season, City Lights Theater Company has managed to bring startling new life to an arguably over-exposed musical. There are no surprises left with a show like American Idiot. City Lights knows this, and has modified its adaptation in a wonderfully endearing way.
Thru Aug 21, Various Times, $17-$35
City Lights Theater, San Jose