Initially conceived by the band as a ‘punk rock opera’, it was no surprise when, five years later, Green Day’s 2004 Grammy Award winning album, American Idiot, metamorphosed into a stage musical.
The latest incarnation of the show, at long last now playing in Adelaide at Her Majesty’s, proves to be a perplexing experience, simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating in its mix of musical muscle, strong vocal performances, breathtaking technical wizardry…and its clunky narrative, which is full of clichéd, confusing characterisation and quantum leaps in plot-line.
In effect Billy Joe Armstrong’s tale of post adolescent disenfranchisement and dislocation in an America labouring under the polarising domestic and international policies of George Bush Jnr. is a story as old as story-telling itself. Stripped to its core it is a ‘coming of age’ tale, as young people come to terms with compromising their idealistic dreams and ambitions as they face the onset of adulthood.
Green Day’s songs were embraced upon their original release as anthemic crowd pleasers, appealing in their exploitation of the then dominant power chord cartoon punk template that was at its zenith of popularity in the mid-nineties. Lyrically impressionistic, the songs suggested a vaguely anti-establishment political viewpoint rather than specifically outlining any real sort of alternative manifesto. This is where the main problem occurs in the conversion of the album to a 90 minute stage musical.
The production has very little dialogue linking the action between songs, choosing to rely almost solely on the lyrics themselves to propel the narrative. As a result, particularly in the louder, more frantic paced songs where the band competes with the singers for aural dominance, clarity in understanding motivations for action is sometimes lost.
True, Green Day fans will know the lyrics inside out – the album did sell tens of millions after all – so it will not pose much of a problem for these people, but those who attend without the benefit of such intimate association with the core material will be more than a little bewildered at the chaotic pace of plot development and in the lack of attention paid to character and relationship evolution.
The political element of the show is mainly conveyed through the contextualising projections presented on multitudinous television screens where the current zeitgeist of Trump-era angst is acknowledged as a key factor in the ongoing disillusionment of the young protagonists. It is tokenistic, of course, as the characters are far more consumed with their own issues and problems to stop and critically examine the political processes working against them in the background.
In the era of the #MeToo movement, it could be argued that the depiction of women in the narrative is more than a little problematic, rendering the central ideas and concerns more than a little dated.
The story revolves around males predominantly, and the main female characters are presented in fairly stereotypical roles – mother, whore or idealised goddess – two of whom are not even given the courtesy of individualisation through being given names. ‘Whatshername’ and ‘Extraordinary Girl’ are both accommodating and generally subservient. The one other significant female character, Heather, ends up pregnant and subjected to abuse through neglect by the father of her child before leaving him. She ends up with another male partner – predictably, a rock star boyfriend where we can assume she will still be little more than an accessory to the ambitious male’s pursuit of fame.
So there are issues with the material, but the quality of the performance is hugely impressive. The main ensemble are almost uniformly excellent – albeit the ‘star’ turn by Grinspoon’s Phil Jamieson was a little ‘by the numbers’ at times on opening night.
Linden Furnell, as Johnny (aka the Jesus of Suburbia) inhabited the role with flair. His vocals were powerful and filled with nuance. Johnny’s buddies, Will and Tunny (played by Alex Jeans and Connor Crawford respectively), were also impressive in support, as was Ashleigh Taylor as Heather whose crystal clear voice was surprisingly well suited to the rock genre.
Helpmann Award nominee, Phoebe Panaretos, as Whatshername, also possesses a powerful voice but her performance was a little too self-aware throughout this particular performance. Kayla Attard combined some impressive gasp-inducing aerial dance moves with her convincing vocal performance in the role of the Extraordinary Girl.
The band play tightly throughout, ensuring the crunching power of the songs is consistently maintained and are impressive in their ability to stay perfectly in synch with the on stage action at all times.
In fact, the frantic pace of the production means the synchronisation of sound, vocal, dance, lighting and other audio-visual elements is paramount to the show’s success, and the precision of all involved here is hugely impressive.
The director, Craig Ilott, deserves high praise for co-ordinating such a tour-de-force of stagecraft.
As a night of interpretations of Green Day songs the show is a clear triumph – it engages and excites the senses physically.
As a narrative, however, it is significantly flawed – and therefore is an intellectually unfulfilling experience.
Green Day’s American Idiot – season runs until 28 January at Her Majesty’s Theatre, 58 Grote Street, Adelaide.
Tickets available through Adelaide Festival Centre: https://www.adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au/events/green-days-american-idiot/