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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Theatre review: American Idiot has energy to spare (and a kick-ass band)

Thanks to the energy of its cast, Green Day’s music and a smoking hot band, the first sixty minutes of the Fighting Chance Productions presentation of American Idiot is absolutely electric.

Energy and a great band only gets you so far though, and as things wrap up in its final thirty minutes, you realize that something is missing. That something is an emotional resonance that should come from the lyrics.

Based on the 2004 concept album of the same name by Green Day, the self-described “punk rock opera” marked a comeback for the American rock band, going on to sell 15 million copies worldwide. That it would eventually become a stage musical shouldn’t come as a huge surprise given the band looked to musical theatre, in addition to past rock operas for its album’s inspiration.

Inspired by American politics of the time, including the presidency of George W Bush and the Iraq War, the album, and subsequent musical, taps into the disillusionment of a generation coming of age in a post 9/11 world.  It follows the story of three friends from small-town America who take diverging paths – Will (Ross Foster) deadens life with alcohol and pot after discovering his girlfriend is pregnant; Johnny (Tristan Smith) ventures to the big city where he discovers love and heroin; and Tunny (Nick Heffelfinger) joins the military. In a somewhat optimistic ending, the three are eventually reunited, ultimately resigning themselves to life in their hometown.

As my theatre companion reminded me last night, it’s not difficult to see the similarities between American Idiot and Hair, the 1979 rock musical that explores many of the same themes. Like its earlier counterpart, American Idiot also relies heavily on the music to help tell its story. Therein lies one of the biggest problems with the production currently on stage at Granville Island’s Waterfront Theatre.

With no more a couple dozen words spoken through the musical, the narrative relies exclusively on the music. Virtually sung-through over its 90 minutes, the lyrics are the story and even when microphones are turned on – there were numerous occasions on opening night when microphones didn’t work – Green Day’s angst-ridden words are largely indistinguishable.

While it is not difficult to follow this show’s storyline, even when we don’t understand everything this cast is singing, the result is an emotional void that fails to connect what we are seeing on stage to what is being sung. By the sixty minute mark, the excitement generated by the cast, and this production’s superb band isn’t enough to carry us through the last third. Even in the show’s quieter moments – and there are few in this raucous musical – the lyrics are largely lost.

The biggest pleasure in this production though comes from the rock band high atop the ubiquitous scaffolding that seems to be the go-to for director Ryan Mooney. Under the direction of Clare Wyatt the band of David Cohen, Jamison Ko, Adrian Sowa and Thomas Wyatt are first-class.

There is energy to spare from this mixed cast of pre-professional and community players. I only wish some of that energy was directed to where it really counts: Green Day’s lyrics.

American Idiot with lyrics by Joe Armstrong, music by Green Day and book by Billie Joe Armstrong & Michael Mayer. Directed by Ryan Mooney. On stage at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island (1412 Cartwright St, Vancouver) playing in repertory with Heathers: The Musical until August 27. Visit for tickets and information.

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