NOVEMBER 2019 | Volume 185
Music by Green Day, lyrics by Billie Joe Armstrong
Book by Billie Joe Armstrong & Michael Mayer
Centennial Theatre, North Vancouver
www.urp.ca or 604-984-4484
The 15-minute pre-show of URP’s production of American Idiot is well worth the price of admission alone. The montage of Trump stating over and over again, “Nobody loves [fill in the blank] more than me,” and “Nobody knows [fill in the blank] more than me,” is the best political take-down I’ve seen on a stage since Neworld Theatre’s Adventures of Ali & Ali and the aXes of Evil opened with the YouTube lipsynch of George W. Bush and Tony Blair singing “Gay Bar” to each other.
Green Day’s American Idiot album was written during the Iraq war, and the title song was aimed at George W. But the album, and the intermissionless, fully sung musical developed from it, has less to do with specific political figures than with the American zeitgeist that produces the flat, inane, needy lives of the three suburban slackers at the centre of the story. Trump’s lies are a perfect metaphor for the corrupt, barren mindscape of Johnny, Will and Tunny’s suburban world.
The ultimately lame story that American Idiot tells is much less important than the often terrific music that tells it and the dynamic young performers who live it onstage. This production is worth seeing for the exciting production. It may be the most impressive work yet from the company that’s given us a lot of musical excitement over the years.
The show literally explodes into its opening title-song punk anthem with Robert Sondergaard’s spectacular lighting spraying the open stage, the large cast of 19 dancing (stomping mostly, with the women flinging their big hair) to Emily Matchette’s dynamic choreography. The set of metal scaffolding, co-designed by Sondegaard and director Richard Berg, is occupied by Rob Hamilton’s six-piece band along with the actors, and a couple of pieces of raggedy furniture mark the downstage corners. Later, a ratty mattress will serve several functions centrestage. Berg is also responsible for the excellent video design and generally clear sound.
The early numbers—“Jesus of Suburbia,” “I Don’t Care,” “Tales of Another Broken Home”—establish the wasteland lives of the three young guys whose mottos might be the lines, “I could really care less,” “I’m gettin’ outta this shithole” and Johnny’s key question: “Is this my life?” Johnny (Colin Sheen) leaves for the city, Tunny (Nick Heffelfinger) joins the army, while Will (Tanner Ford) stays home with his pregnant girlfriend Heather (Erin Palm)—the only woman in the show granted a name.
Things don’t go well for the boys. When Heather has a baby, Will feels increasingly sorry for himself (his key song: “Give Me Novocaine”). Then Heather leaves with the baby. Tunny gets himself an Extraordinary Girl (Jenaya Barker) but falls into despair (his key song: “Before the Lobotomy”). Johnny (playing lovely acoustic guitar accompanied by Catriona Murphy’s plangent violin) sings the show’s best song, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” He falls in love with Whatshername (Ali Watson) and things go well for him until St. Jimmy (Kerry O’Donovan) gets him hooked on drugs (“Last Night on Earth”) and he fucks up the relationship.
The women get to give the boys some hell in “Last of the American Girls/She’s a Rebel,” “21 Guns” and “Letterbomb.” Barker and especially Watson have great screaming rock voices. But it’s to little avail, as the boys regret their abortive escape (“Wake Me Up When September Ends,” another fine ballad with all three on acoustic guitar) and head back home emptyhanded (“We’re Coming Home Again”).
Ironically(??) that song is a kind of triumphal march, with high fives all around and the company celebrating their homecoming—though Johnny answers his initial question: “This is my life.” The encore (“Good Riddance”) appears to reinforce the ironic/positive ending with smiles and hugs and the company singing about “the time of your life” as if this were Dirty Dancing and not a downer tale of failed adolescent rebellion.
But anyway, the production is terrific. Colin Sheen’s Johnny is a standout, though Tanner Ford’s Will has the most compelling voice. All the women are excellent, though their characters are barely sketches. The band is tight—and loud—with Rob Hamilton providing killer guitar solos.American Idiot may be a dumb story but it’s a thrilling experience.
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