New Line Theatre's AMERICAN IDIOT Is A Sly But Powerful Wake Up Call

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New Line Theatre's production of AMERICAN IDIOT, Mar 3 - 26, 2016. Photo Credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg

The New Line Theatre kicked off their second production in their swanky new digs in the Marcelle Theatre with AMERICAN IDIOT, a mostly sung through musical written by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, featuring the entire American Idiot album with a few numbers from 21st Century Breakdown included too. Obviously, if you’re a Green Day fan you’ll probably love the show. Me, I’m not a huge fan. I don’t necessarily dislike the band; I just don’t typically listen to them. Immediately after the performance, my first reaction was, “Nice performed by some great talents, but I don’t have much sympathy for these presumably upper-middle class suburbanites being self-destructive by cooking their heroin and meth on the silver spoons they were born with.” And yet something deep in my guts said, “Sleep on this one. There might be more to this than just having taken 90 minutes with no intermission to hear Johnny whine about nothing and everything all at once.”

I spent quite a bit of the next day musing on the production with the music playing in the background. New Line’s dynamic directing duo of Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy has assembled another sterling cast of local and regional actors backed by the always excellent New Line Band.  AMERICAN IDIOT has a pretty simple plot: three young men desperately want to escape their boring suburbia existences. They seek for themselves what is truth versus what is another lie from an adult, be it their broken families or the George W. Bush White House. Johnny, the nominal leader of the pack, was played by Evan Fornachon, a brilliant young actor who seems to get better and better every time I see him perform. He broke in the Marcelle Theatre’s black box space with an award nominated turn in New Line’s HEATHERS a few months ago, playing the darkly exciting vagabond J.D. He isn’t hard to picture as a front man for a Nu-Punk/Post Grunge band, layered in t-shirts and a dirty hoodie, a streak of red in his unruly dark hair and a touch of eyeliner that hints at A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. His pal Will, played by the likewise talented Brendan Ochs, doesn’t make it out of town as his girlfriend Heather, played powerhouse Larissa White, announced that she’s pregnant. Tunny, played by Frederick Rice in a fantastic New Line debut, joined Johnny on the trip to New York but then joined the army as a reaction to September 11, leaving Johnny alone. Johnny wasn’t alone for long as he meets a girl referred to only as Whatshername, played by Sarah Porter, who’s pretty unforgettable. Their relationship jumped immediately into the hot and heavy hedonism of sex, drugs, and rock & roll – seriously, there’s some steamy simulated sex in one scene that probably had parents and significant others going, “Oh my…” somewhere in the audience. Johnny’s drugs were furnished by St. Jimmy, who I’m not entirely sure is an actual person or an alter ego, though I don’t mind the ambiguity of the roll. Chris Kernan, another up and coming talent in the St. Louis theatre scene, is spectacularly sinister, almost devilish in his red pants and heavy eyeliner. Tunny was wounded in action and nursed back to health by Extraordinary Girl (Sicily Mathenia) and eventually all three truth-seeking friends are reunited back home in Jingletown, having experienced the traumas of self-discovery and adulthood.

The ensemble  of Kevin Corpuz, Cameisha Cotton, Clayton Humburg, Jeremy Hyatt, Omega Jones, Sean Michael , Ariel Saul, Tanya Sapp and Gabe Taylor (New Line’s longtime stage manager does a fine job on the other side of the house) are present on stage for much of the show. Kevin Corpuz drew some cheerful gasps of appreciation for his physique and his “Captain America” boxers and socks when he gets the spotlight for “Fortunate Son.” You could close your eyes and still know where Cameisha Cotton is, as her dynamic voice seems to lead the chorus without drowning everyone out. I recommend that you keep your eyes open though, because she’s a gorgeous young actress with a physical presence ten times greater than her actual petite size. Someday I hope to see Sarah Porter, Larissa White and Cameisha Cotton face off in a musical or do a cabaret together. Everyone was perfectly costumed to channel that feeling of disaffected youth, thanks to Sarah’s costume design talents. The New Line Band, consisting of Sue Goldford, D. Mike Bauer, Aaron Doerr, Andrew Gurney, Twinda Murry, Jessica Nations, and Clancy Newell, nailed the Green Day sound, which was all the more poignant with the addition of the strings section helping to swell the emotional undercurrent at just the right moments.

The only quibble I had with the show from a technical standpoint was the staging set up. From my seats off the aisle from stage left/center, I had a hard time seeing through the heads of the audience to really see what was going on for most of Brendan and Larissa’s scenes, performed stage right. One or the other was frequently sitting, and then I couldn’t see them at all. I’m approximately 0.0000001% of the director Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy are but I wondered if there wasn’t any way to flip the Will and Tunny scenes every now and then to give both sides of the house a chance to see both subplots better. There’s close to twenty people in the show so probably not, but it was somewhat distracting to find an angle to glimpse the actors at that didn’t cause the person next to you or behind you to then have the same problem. Black box theatres allow for flexible seating arrangements, but this production’s cast may simply have been too big to cram into a smaller set-up, so c’est la vie. No disrespect to Brendan and Larissa, since I’ve seen them both perform before and know what they bring, but by the end of the show I was glad to have been seated on the “Frederick Rice” side of the stage to see the new kid totally rock his debut. His voice sounded terrific, blended well with Evan and Sicily, and his acting was marvelous too. I look forward to seeing more of Mr. Rice on stages around St. Louis. 

The cast of New Line Theatre's AMERICAN IDIOT, Mar 3 - 26. Photo Credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg

Please forgive the editorial that this will no doubt become, but I want to explain how I arrived at the conclusion that AMERICAN IDIOT is actually a much better show than my initial reaction would indicate. It took a little time for this one to sink in. As I said at the beginning, I’m not the biggest Green Day fan. The only album of theirs that I’d really listened to in its entirety up to this point is Dookie, and while it had a couple of decent songs on it, most of it felt like most of the 1990s did for me: forced. The 80s were anything goes experimentation, but the 90s seemed to be a bit more corporate, an artistic recession saved only by the breakout success of the Grunge movement in rock music. Green Day’s angst felt a bit contrived, made especially for an over-produced American punk revival rather than the seemingly authentic vitriol of the Sex Pistols in punk’s UK heyday. Green Day is often categorized as punk, but I’ve always thought of them as more or less grunge with a punk-styled delivery. Punk was usually just flat-out angry at authority and conformity (and in my opinion a decidedly British genre, despite the popularity of The Ramones) whereas grunge, and Green Day, were a bit more angrily introspective. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Green Day certainly had issues with authority and conformity, but they seemed to look at themselves more than the societal pressures of the time. Frankly, music is pretty subjective and genre labels are only really useful in cataloging products in retail stores, so Green Day’s punk credibility isn’t really the point.

The point is they weren’t wrong. American Idiot came out a decade after Dookie, my musical tastes had changed and Green Day simply wasn’t on my radar anymore. I wasn’t a college kid struggling to save up enough for the next semester’s tuition, angry that our government was getting deeper into a war we still haven’t truly won yet. By the time American Idiot hit the stores I was working a 40 hour corporate workweek in cubicle hell. I looked at the angry bands, and anyone categorized as punk from 1990 to the present, and wondered what in the world they were bitching about. They didn’t grow up under the constant threat of nuclear war, a lousy job market, the almighty dollar not going as far as it used to…but they did. They grew up from the first Desert Storm to September 11 to the Great Recession, so named because the cowards on Capitol Hill never had the intestinal fortitude to call it The Great Depression II (but Hollywood would have jumped all over that). It’s as I sit here now, yet another decade older and just a tiny bit wiser, that I realized the Sex Pistols and The Clash calling attention to external pressures and Green Day and their more internalized pressure to live up to family and society expectations really are the same complaint. Things are messed up and nobody is really trying to fix them. Billie Joe Armstrong was acutely aware that he was in danger of becoming exactly what the previous generation—those wild kids of the 80s—had become: another generation who just gave up trying to beat the game. American Idiot, the album, and AMERICAN IDIOT, the musical, are a call to arms, metaphorically speaking. I just hadn’t heard the call before, as I generally still listen to 80s era Duran Duran, Peter Gabriel and Rick Astley if given a choice. Shut up, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Rick Astley.

“The Powers That Be” are screwing up our country and our world, and yet “We the People” – the American Idiots, if you will – are going to do the same damn thing each generation before us has done, decade after decade. We’ll rally against the system but we’ll ultimately conform. We’ll stupidly think that since the current President is doing such a horrible job, we should elect someone from the other party, because that clearly worked last time, and the time before that, ad infinitum. We won’t change anything. We won’t vote out a Congress that has gone into business almost entirely for itself with the sole purpose of killing any meaningful legislation proposed by the rival party, just because they can. We’ll pick from a field of absolute horror shows to elect our next President, and we won’t like him (or her) either in four years but we’ll probably re-elect them because once again there won’t be a viable alternative that’s any better to choose from. The American Way has become a Boulevard of Broken Dreams. I’ve occasionally suggested on social media that America needs some tough love. We don’t subscribe to John F. Kennedy’s suggestion of asking not what this country can do for us, but what we can do for our country anymore. From the gun ownership lobbyists to the anti-abortionists to the great racial divide that seems to grow more tenuous every time you turn on the news, it’s always all about “me.” It took me a solid day of contemplation and listening to Green Day’s post-September 11 catalog to realize that Billie Joe Armstrong, flawed as anyone else, gets it better than most. I was wrong to think that his music was the complaint of a spoiled brat complaining about having a bucolic, Normal Rockwell childhood. I think his real message was not that different from John Lennon some forty years earlier. We need some real changes, a revolution, or we’re doomed. American Idiots, indeed.

Get your reality check at New Line Theatre’s production of AMERICAN IDIOT, playing March 3 – 26, 2016 at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, just three blocks east of Grand Boulevard behind Powell Hall. Visit www.NewLineTheatre.com for more information about AMERICAN IDIOT, tickets, and future shows.

Grade: 
4.5 / 5.0